Title: Savages (2012)
Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch
I enjoyed Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday (1999), it had a lot of his kinetic energy, a lot of his love for Americana, and I loved how he filmed football like it was a war, but I'm not a huge fan of football, so that film wasn't really big on my Oliver Stone-o-meter; yes I have one of those. In reality, the last Oliver Stone movie that I really enjoyed was U-Turn (1997), I believe that was Stone's last truly edgy film. It wasn't based on any real life events, it wasn't making any political statements or trying to uncover some age old conspiracy like a lot of Oliver Stone's films do, no, U-Turn was Oliver Stone simply having some fun telling a story about this shitty day Sean Penn has when he falls, like a fly into a fly trap, into this hell hole of a town, straight out of a Twilight Zone episode. It was kinetic, it was weird, it was offbeat, it was dark and funny...and it had that great Billy Bob Thornton performance. Sadly, every other film Stone has made after that one has missed that Oliver Stone kineticness we all came to love. Actually, the title U-Turn was so symbolic because from there on in, Stone's films just haven't been the same.
Oliver Stone, working out a scene with Travolta and Kitsch
Take World Trade Center (2006) for example. What a boring film! Had that been a true Oliver Stone film it would have focused on the terrorists on the plane or on the conspiracy theory that maybe it was the Americans who blew themselves up to have an excuse to invade Iraq or something like that. But no, since World Trade Center was made by the "neutured by Hollywood" Oliver Stone, well, it was about these heroic firemen; a noble and sentimental approach to the whole World Trade Center tragedy, but not in my opinion the kind of story that the old Oliver Stone would have told. Same goes for W (2008), a film that was "soft" when compared to similar Stone films like the mindblowingly good JFK (1991) or NIXON (1995). So now, here comes Savages, and judging by the looks of the previews, it seemed like this is Stone's attempt to grow some balls back and have some fun while doing it. Not a bad combination in my book. It seemed to me like Savages was going to show us Stone's still got it in him to make a film with an edge to it. It looked like he was ready to give us another jolt of shock to the system. Did Stone deliver the goods?
On Savages we meet two California weed dealers, Ben and Chon; two friends who have decided to use their capabilities to produced and sell some of the finest weed ever smoked by man. One graduated from college and has extensive knowledge on botany and chemistry, the other is an ex military who offers his military know-how and is the muscles of the operation. The two of them are in love with the same woman, Opehelia, and they all live in beach side mansion in California. Their lives are like a dream, selling and smoking weed, making tons of dough, they are living the life so to speak. But Ben wants a normal life and wants out of the weed selling business, he convinces Chon and Ophelia to do the same. In their minds they can effectively run off to Indonesia and live a luxurious life over there, far away from all the drug dealing. But what happens when the bigger drug dealers don't want them to go?
First the good news: this isn't a completely unwatchable Oliver Stone film; it has many of the things we've come to expect from the legendary filmmaker, albeit with less intensity. It's got violence, drugs, sex and controversial ideas, but it just doesn't get too intense, not like old Stone films would. One of the most controversial ideas the film puts across is that marijuana should be legalized; that it's only a matter of time before this happens. And herein lies the surprise for me with this movie: I wasn't expecting for the film to be a Stoner Flick. This movie is really, really about weed; actually it borders on glorifying or even glamorizing it. There are these scenes where the main characters are just smoking away, 'chillaxing'; that's chilling and relaxing all roled up into one in case you're wondering. It really captures what it means to smoke weed, to be in that totally chilled, spaced out moment, we even get one of these scenes that we saw before in Stones own The Doors (1991), where characters are high, looking out at the stars, loosing themselves in the vastness of space. The names of the main characters in the film: 'Ben and Chon' are enough of an indication to tell us that this film will be all about weed, the names of course remind us of those perennial pot heads from the 70's Cheech and Chong. So a big theme here is marijuana, and how if it was legalized, a lot of unnecesary crap could be avoided.
The glamorizing aspect of the film comes when we see the kind of life that these two guys and their girlfriend live. They make the finest pot ever, they are drug dealers yet they live in these beautiful homes, have these cool cars, and share the hottest girlfriend, which by the way is another controversial aspect of the film, the depiction of a threesome. It doesn't really go too deeply into the whole threesome thing like the way Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) did, but it does make a point to tell us that this kind of thing just doesn't work out. Bottom line though is that these guys are drug dealers, but they are depicted as the nicest drug dealers ever. They dress like surfers, and drive these expensive sports cars and what have you, but come on, these guys are supposed to be drug dealers! To me they just didn't look the part, they didn't convince me they were dealers. They came off as too nice for drug dealers. They looked more like surfer dudes who would be smoking the pot rather then making it and sell it. And here for me is where the film has a few faults.
Stone's cinematic characters were never beatuftiful people, they were always caricatures of what humans are like. With emotions augmented and personafied. I'm thinking of James Wood's in Salvador (1986), Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers (1994), not the best looking peole, but boy could they act the hell out of their characters. They had such intensity to them. His characters were always rough looking, ugly in a way, disturbed, and sometimes even cartoonish somehow. Take Tom Cruise for example -the sex symbol of his day- he starred in Born on the Fourth of July (1989), but even then, Stone turned Cruise into a demented freak in a wheel chair, with long hair and a mustachio, trying to screw Mexican whores with a limp dick. Point is, only recently did he start this thing about putting beautiful people in his films, this probably is at the request of Hollywood producers. Stone seems to be aware of this himself, because even though he's got young, good looking protagonists on his film, he places them in juxtaposition to,Benicio del Toro as the villain called 'Lado'. Now Benicio is the kind of character you'd expect to see in an Oliver Stone film, he fits the bill perfectly. Benicio is a fantastic actor, and in this film he even comes off as frightening and scary in his violent ways. The character of Lado gives us a small glimmer of what Stone's characters used to be like. Scary, ugly, dangerous, edgy kind of characters. I loved how Stone addresses the issue of beautiful protagonists by having 'Lado' make fun of Ben by telling him that he's "cute"; in this scene, Stone is making fun of the fact that he has these two Calvin Klein models as protagonists on his film.
Other than that, this is pretty much an Oliver Stone film, but light. He still uses the change in film stock, sometimes the film goes to black and white, sometimes we see over saturated images...but at the same times the camera stays still a lot. It's missing that frenetic pacing we used to have in Stone's films, where we felt as if a coked up dude was telling us the story. I guess Stone is getting old, and it doesn't surprise me that his films keep getting softer the older he gets; this happens to many filmmakers as they start getting older, they kind of loose what made them cool when they were young. Kind of like aging rock stars, some don't loose it, but most do. I don't think Stone has totally lost his cool yet, he might have an awesomely dark film up his sleeve yet, but this one just ain't it. I'm not saying it's a bad film, because it has a lot of cool stuff going for it. It's fun, it's fast paced. But for an Oliver Stone film, it's just too bright, too colorful, too beautiful..too perfect in a way. I liked the chaotic nature of previous Stone films. But then again, the way this film was made was probably done intentionally. It looks to me like Stone was going for a film with beautiful people, lots of colors and a happy kind of vibe going for it, this is a film about smoking weed after all. Savages is a film where even the villains where kind of likable, as is the case with Salma Hayek's 'Elena'; a villain who comes off as a mother figure of sorts. Even though the film does have decaptations and bloodshed, it felt like a milder kind of film from and old marketer of 'Gloom and Doom'; which of course is why it feels so strange. Not bad, just different, definetly not what you'd expect from Stone. Savages is the kind of film where everything goes smoothly for the pot heads; but in the end, it left me longing for the old war horse that Stone was.
Rating 3 1/2 out of 5