I WALKED INTO Savages with pretty tempered expectations. The movie opened nearly two weeks ago, and I’ll admit that the middling reviews it’s been receiving almost prevented me from seeing it. It’s not that the story of a weird California love/pot triangle seemed uninteresting or lacking in shock value. It was more the idea that a movie with such a ridiculous storyline could somehow manage to miss the entertainment value mark.
Savages has all of the elements of a truly entertaining film. Its lead actors, Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson, are two up and coming young actors with some solid acting chops. There are explosions, scenes of graphic torture, Salma Hayek in low-cut dresses, and some pretty decent dialogue for a movie where the protagonists spend a somewhat absurd amount of the film cracking lame marijuana puns. Benecio del Toro and John Travolta give great performances as a cartel enforcer and crooked DEA agent, respectively, and Blake Lively even manages to shed a bit of that Gossip Girl image of hers. Any other director would be able to take material like that and sculpt it into something worth paying money to go see. The problem is that Oliver Stone is not just any other director.
Oliver Stone has directed some of the greatest movies to hit American cinemas. Nobody is disputing that — and therein lies the problem. Somewhere around 1996, Oliver Stone stopped giving a shit. Nixon was pretty much his last good movie and even that began to show signs that this was no longer the Stone of Platoon fame. And, if you mix that general apathy with an ever-growing sense that the government is evil incarnate (see this spot on Bill Maher), the quality of your productions is inevitably going to go tumbling down.
The most glaring issue with Savages is the tired, faux-edgy voice-over narration that bookends the film. I’m not sure how Stone managed to get Blake Lively to deliver the line, “I had orgasms, Chon had wargasms,” but it had to have been nothing short of the threat of violence. Lively’s narration pretty much ruins what happen to be a collection of the most beautiful shots in the film, shots that would have been much more powerful had they been left unencumbered by clunky dialogue. Much like the muddied and over-the-top plot, Stone tries to shoehorn too many film techniques and allusions into one movie. It oftentimes feels as if Savages is having a fight with itself over just what kind of movie it should be.
The second most glaring issue is the intense focus on a naked man-ass in the first ten minutes of the movie. This is less an issue with male nudity and more of a personal issue I have with Hollywood’s continual misuse of Taylor “Tim Riggins” Kitsch. Savages should have been the vehicle to showcase his ability to both brood and smoulder at the same time, but instead he gets to play another meathead whose range of emotions goes from angry to murderous. The minute Oliver Stone decided to show off Kitsch’s flexing ass before he uttered a line of dialogue pretty much signified to the audience that, “This is a man with bulging muscles who I used to fill a role.” Who the actor is doesn’t really matter, as long as he looks good on top of Blake Lively. The same goes for Aaron Johnson. The guy was electric in Nowhere Boy as a young John Lennon, but in Savages he is reduced to the stereotypical stoner-hippie who nearly faints at the sight of blood. Stone could have gotten so much more out of these two actors had he let them act instead of forcing them to regurgitate lines like, “They call it high-jacking for a reason,” while toking up before a literal highjacking.
Now, is Savages a decent enough way to spend two hours in the air conditioning on a ninety-five degree Tuesday night? Sure. There are enough explosions and scenes of ruthless cartel violence to at least justify spending money to see this one in theaters. If you can, literally go on a Tuesday night. You’ll have the place to yourself and you hopefully won’t have to pay full price. Will you walk away from the movie truly pleased with what you just saw? Almost definitely not. No matter how great Benecio del Toro is and no matter how many times you catch a glimpse of Blake Lively’s sideboob, Savages remains savagely mediocre.
Previous installments of “The Verdict”: