- "I never saw 'Natural Born Killers.' Was it any good?" Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively and Aaron Johnson are much-abused in a new action thriller from Oliver Stone.
Oliver Stone's new film is about two California marijuana growers who come up against a nasty Mexican drug cartel. The movie makes you wish you were stoned, but not to share in any excitement or inspiration it generates over the pot business.
Being intoxicated would help you make it through the silly dialogue, ridiculous plot developments and embarrassing overacting that undermine this poorly conceived exploitation picture. "Savages" goes for broke trying to shock and titillate audiences but is more unintentionally humorous than thrilling. It's also about 20 years out of date. Stone might once have been a boundary-pushing explorer of vice and desperation with movies like "Natural Born Killers," but "Savages" just makes him seem desperate. He's trying so hard to prove he still has an edge he forgets to give the movie a point.
It might have been better to make a narrower investigation of the contemporary Mexican drug wars, which have been crossing the border in recent years. This is an undeniably timely element in the film. However, by adapting a popular crime novel by Don Winslow, Stone centers his story on three attractive Americans — Chon (Taylor Kitsch), Ben (Aaron Johnson), and Ophelia (Blake Lively) — who grow lots of unusually potent weed and live together in a mutually rewarding ménage à trois.
The popularity of their potent product attracts the attention of the cartel, which requests a partnership, or else. Led by the ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek) and enforced by her equally cruel lieutenant Lado (Benicio Del Toro), the cartel makes what seems like a fair offer, but Chon and Ben don't trust it. They decide to surreptitiously leave the country, their plans foiled by the abduction of Ophelia.
While these developments might be unnerving in print, on screen they happen too fast and too predictably. "Savages" has a difficult time getting under your skin because Stone wants you to care about what's happening to his characters, rather than care about the characters. The contrivances aren't just too numerous, but often moronic. Chon and Ben have a vast network of highly-skilled assistants, for example, including Chon's Navy SEAL buddies and a computer whiz-slash-Wall Street derivatives defector (Emile Hirsch) who can launder money and erase any trace of your existence in a blink. But none of them are smart enough to stop Ophelia from going to the mall the day they're supposed to be secreting themselves out of the country.
Ophelia, by the way, narrates all of the above. A spoiled, joint-rolling flibbertigibbet, Ophelia feels just right as the narrator of a movie of this caliber, and Lively embodies her perfectly. Ophelia likes to be called O, and opens the film by describing sex with Chon, the Afghanistan War veteran. "I had orgasms," O intones as if talking philosophy, "he had wargasms." Supposedly Stone co-wrote the script. Did he read it?
I wish Chon, Ben and Ophelia had successfully escaped to Indonesia. Then we wouldn't have had to spend so much time with the film's other half, the cartel and their relentless odiousness. Hayek and Del Toro's scenes are so bombastic they feel like they could be outtakes from Will Ferrell's recent ranchero parody, "Casa de Mi Padre."
Chon and Ben strike back at the cartel by robbing their secret U.S. hideouts, a briefly interesting Butch and Sundance-style ploy aided by Chon's ties with the SEALs. It's mindless yet appealing excitement, but it doesn't last. Stone is too intent on going bigger, including many more subplots involving torture, murder, rape and other shock tactics. He even menaces the audience with John Travolta, who shows up as a corrupt Drug Enforcement Administration agent named Dennis. As Ferrell's parody demonstrated earlier this year, every clichéd drug movie needs its corrupt, playing-by-his-own-rules DEA agent, and anyone who has seen a Travolta film in the last 15 years knows Dennis fits the bill perfectly without even buying a ticket.
As "Savages" plunges into its death throes, the audience is treated to not one but two uninspired endings. "That's the way I imagined it, anyway," Ophelia, says, admitting her pedestrian imagination before the movie rewinds for a second run at its conclusion. Stone likely hoped "Savages" would be a hip thriller to impress the younger generation and reassert his stature as an important filmmaker. Audience reaction at the screening I attended was mostly embarrassed laughter.
I don't think that's the way he imagined it. (R) 116 min. S