Oliver Stone hit a hot streak in the 1980s, directing Platoon, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July. These movies attracted audiences and made statements. In the ’90s, his controversy-courting JFK and Natural Born Killers got much attention, too.
More topical but less noticed movies followed, including 2008’s W., 2006’s World Trade Center and a belated Wall Street sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
Stone’s new film also features a timely subject, Mexico’s epidemic of drug-fueled violence.
Relevant to the times though Savages is, Stone isn’t sending messages or making statements, at least not overtly. In this stylish film that looks as good as any top Hollywood production should, Stone does his sleek impression of a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Tarantino wrote 1994’s Stone-directed Natural Born Killers. Stone co-wrote the similarly titled Savages, a blood-splattered crime story based on Don Winslow’s best-selling 2010 novel.
Savages, the movie, features an actor who’ll forever be identified with his comeback role as the twisting Vincent Vega in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. John Travolta, co-starring as a rogue Drug Enforcement Administration agent, is part of a well-oiled ensemble cast in a smartly rendered movie that contains more flash and style than heart and soul. Even if Savages is a shallow enterprise, it holds one’s attention.
The Laguna Beach-dwelling lovers who are at the center of it all are a stumbling block. They don’t credibly sell the soul-deep connection they’re advertised as having.
Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson play the Ben and Jerry of marijuana merchants. They’re partners in the production of the best weed money can buy. Their business has brought them great reward, including the luxurious Laguna Beach home they share.
Home isn’t the only thing Ben and Chon share. They love the same girl, Blake Lively’s Ophelia, O for short. It’s a ménage a trois in paradise.
Ben, Chon and O lose paradise when a living nightmare, the vicious Mexican Baja drug cartel, decides it wants a percentage of Ben and Chon’s business. This is an offer the Laguna operators probably can’t get away with refusing.
Colorful, Tarantino-esque characters and a director who moves things briskly along keep Savages afloat. There’s also action, largely due to Chon being a former Navy SEAL who recruits friends from his ultimate brotherhood of warriors to fight a new war with Mexico.
Lively verbal battles ensue, too, especially between Chon, Ben and Travolta’s dirty DEA agent, and Travolta and Benicio Del Toro’s cavalier, all-purpose Mexican killer. Salma Hayek gets to exercise power over life and death, too, as the Mexican drug dealer who O dubs the Red Queen.
Despite the extensive talent behind and in front of the cameras, Savages never becomes more than a well-done distraction. Despite all the danger and violence and brutality, it doesn’t really take a viewer for a suspenseful ride. Ben and Chon’s high-stakes mission to save O never seems more than a game. Savages does not immerse.
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