- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Universal Pictures
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
t’s been a while since Oliver Stone directed a movie that was actually worth caring about; you’d probably have to go as far back as “Nixon” to find the last instance, although I have a soft spot for “Any Given Sunday.” But while his latest effort doesn’t represent a complete return to form for the filmmaker, it’s pretty evocative of his celebrated work from the late '80s and '90s. Based on the Don Wilson bestselling novel of the same name, "Savages" is Stone's best movie in years – not exactly the slam-bam action thriller that it's being advertised as, but still a mostly enjoyable film anchored by a great cast.
The story is told through the eyes of O (Blake Lively), a blonde and beautiful Laguna Beach rich girl who lives with best friends/business partners Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) as their sort of mutual girlfriend. Ben is the brain behind their marijuana operation, a passive botanist who cultivated the seeds that ex-Navy SEAL Chon (the muscle) brought back from Afghanistan into a super-potent strain of weed, creating a small, independent empire along the way. When the Mexican Baja Cartel comes calling with a business proposition for Ben and Chon to merge into a joint venture, and the duo politely declines, the drug cartel's ruthless leader Elena (Salma Hayek) sends her right-hand man (Benico Del Toro) to kidnap O in the hope that it will force them to accept her deal. But instead, it sets off a violent chain of events that no one but Chon saw coming.
“Savages” is a good movie that should have been a great one, but unfortunately, there’s something standing in the way that prevents it from achieving its full potential, and that something is Blake Lively. It’s hard to believe that Jennifer Lawrence was originally cast in the role before dropping out to star in “The Hunger Games,” because she would have been a major upgrade over Lively. Not only is the actress incredibly dull, but she fails to give the audience any reason to care about the fate of her character. The fact that she’s in charge of the film’s cumbersome narration (which doles out its share of gratingly unnecessary exposition) certainly doesn’t help matters, but the biggest problem is that Lively isn't very likeable despite being the object of Ben and Chon’s shared affections.
Thankfully, the rest of the cast fares much better. Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch strike up a good chemistry as the other two members of the love triangle, and though Johnson gets more to chew on with the stronger character arc of the pair (especially as he evolves from peaceful do-gooder into a “savage” like everyone else), Kitsch is able to show off his strengths as the strong and silent type. It’s the veteran actors, however, that really steal the show. John Travolta has an amusing turn as a crooked FBI agent; Salma Hayek reminds viewers what she's capable of as the unlikely cartel boss; and Benicio Del Toro delivers some of his best work since “Traffic” as the brutal enforcer.
All of the actors seem to be having a ball playing such colorful characters (especially Del Toro, who literally twirls his mustache in a few scenes), and it’s nice to see Oliver Stone doing something a little more fun for once that doesn't have an agenda to cram down the audience's throats. In fact, there are actually a few darkly comical moments sprinkled throughout, and the movie would have only benefited from more just like it. Though "Savages" could have done without all the little stylistic flourishes that Stone is so found of using, there's a lot more to love about the film than there is to hate, because while Lively’s involvement may threaten to derail it at times, it’s still a really solid crime thriller and a welcome return to the kind of movie that Stone needs to make more often.
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Universal has put together a decent collection of bonus material for the film's Blu-ray release, including an audio commentary with director Oliver Stone that offers some good insight into making the movie, both in front of and behind the camera. Additionally, there's a handful of deleted scenes and a five-part production featurette called "Stone Cold Savages" that covers everything from the story's origins, casting, stunts and more.