When I first saw the trailer for Savages I was more than a little unimpressed; in fact I was beginning to accept that there were no more great films to come from one of the directors I believe was in the top five working directors of the 80s and the 90s. Over the past decade he’s managed to churn out some decent films, but nothing that can measure up to Platoon, JFK, The Doors, Natural Born Killers or Nixon. With Alexander he took a big gamble and it was a commercial bomb, and since then it seems he’s been playing it safe. What I always respected about Stone was that he never used to play it safe; he took bold chances whether it be with the topic of the film or with the style of the film, but it seemed the commercial failure of Alexander took its toll.
One piece missing from Stone’s crew that I feel has made an impact over the years has been the absence of cinematographer Robert Richardson. Could this be the key ingredient missing all this time? Richardson has done some great work with other directors most notably with Tarantino (Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds) as well as Scorsese (Hugo). But for me when I look at some of the great director and cinematographer relationships over the years, the one with Stone and Richardson seems to be the perfect marriage of talent put to the screen. After working on several films without Richardson at his side, I feel Stone has found a suitable fit for him with Daniel Mindel (Domino, Star Trek) as his shooter this time around.
The movie was apparently adapted from a novel; I never read the novel, so I have no way of knowing how true the adaption is. So for any fans of the book, I’m sorry I can’t help you out on that front. But what I can say is that what Stone presents us with is pretty much a straightforward film. If you missed the trailer, it’s simple, two guys Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are in love with the same girl O (Blake Lively). The guys just happen to grow some of the best weed ever that everyone wants to get a hold of, especially the Mexican drug cartel. When the guys decide to not take the deal offered by the cartel, O is kidnapped as leverage to convince the guys to change their minds. What unfolds is filled with so much double-crossing and bloodshed that you may need to take notes to keep track of who is on whose side.
Apparently Taylor Kitsch was supposed to be the next big thing in Hollywood, but with John Carter and Battleship bombing, it seemed any hope for this guy was about gone. But after this movie I can see what the hype is about. The layers he gives to his character are more than just the delivery of lines, and he carries the tortured existence of this broken shell of a man whose seen the horrors and hell of war. His eagerness to do what it takes to save O is more than love; in fact, it seems he needs to save her in order to save himself since she seems to be all that held onto his humanity. And Johnson does a great job as Ben, who we see from the start is opposite to Chon in nearly every way; instead of a soldier he has his degree in botany and travels to Africa to do volunteer work. In many ways it’s hard to see how these guys could stand to be around one another, but the two have this onscreen chemistry together that made it easy to look past the character contrast.
And from the very start of the film, and I do mean even the opening scene, Stone sets us up for something that isn’t going to be pleasant. We see a group of Mexican men tied up and being filmed with a camera phone just before we hear the sounds of a chainsaw roaring to life, and what follows, well, it’s not pretty. A lot of this film is not pretty, and that’s how a film with this subject matter should be treated. It’s a film called Savages, and just about every character in this film would fit the description of a savage.
The character of Lado (Benico Del Toro) is one who is so primal and so evil it’s hard to accept that people like this do exist in this world. His role of playing henchman for Elena (Salma Hayek) is a role Del Toro inhabits so well; I mean, come award season this is the role that will be getting some nominations. You don’t know if he’s simply a cold-blooded killer or a criminal genius as he plays everyone to his advantage. And then you have Hayek in what has to be the role of her career; damn, is she fun to watch in this. The trailers make her seem like she’s playing this role over the top, but that is not the case. She juggles the role of concerned mother as well as the head of the cartel with such venom and grace that when she has scenes with Lado she has him looking like a scolded puppy. She just shines in every scene here. And then there is John Travolta in the role of a dirty DEA agent Dennis whose wife is dying of cancer, and he is so good here you don’t even know for sure in the end if he was a good guy or a bad guy. I couldn’t believe it I was actually enjoying Travolta on screen; he’s having fun with this character, and you can see he’s not just showing up for a check but actually delivering a solid performance.
What I’m trying to say is that basically this is one of the best ensemble pictures I’ve seen in a while, and watching these characters interact together is cinema bliss. I have so many favorite moments in this film I don’t know where to begin. The kidnapping of O at the mall is so clever and simple, and the imagery invoked memories of Body Double. A cartel escort being hijacked and having 3 million stolen from them. Lado trying to get a confession out of a cartel member with bull whips in hand. Or the innocent conversations O and Elena share over dinner. And there are so many other moments in this film that my mind goes back to and embraces with geeky joy.
The simplest way to describe this would be to say it’s a cross between A Fist Full of Dollars and Scarface, but it’s more than that. This is a film where a director put all his talent and attention into a film and just wanted to have a good time with it. Come awards time I doubt this will get much attention because of the genre, but the acting is top-notch and the film looks beautiful.
So why doesn’t this get a 5, you may ask. Well there are two issues I have with the film. The first concerns the narration with Blake Lively; there is too much of it, and there is just nothing to her delivery in it; the film would have worked just fine without it. The bigger issue I have is with the ending. I won’t spoil anything, but it’s just so out of place with this film. I don’t know if this was a studio choice or one by the filmmakers, but this goes down as one of the worst endings I’ve seen in a long while. For those that see the film I’d love to hear their opinions on this, because I know I can’t be the only one that felt that it was almost a slap in the face. If it’s a true story, fine, I can swallow that, but then I want to know why the end was approached as it was.