Here’s a question for you: If I ask you to name your favorite ‘legendary’ film director, would your answer be Oliver Stone? While I’ve seen so many of his films, somehow his name is never on the tip of my tongue. Maybe that is because at times, rather going for great, he goes for controversial. Still not sure and need to consider the question? Okay, how about a list of films that have Oliver Stone’s imprint on them to help you consider?
Director: Savages, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, World Trade Center, Nixon, Natural Born Killers, JFK, The Doors, Born on the Fourth of July, Talk Radio, Wall Street, Platoon, and Salvador.
Writer: Evita, Heaven & Earth, 8 Million Ways to Die, Year of the Dragon, Scarface, Conan The Barbarian, and Midnight Express.
Producer: Alexander, The Corrupter, The People vs Larry Flynt, Freeway, The Joy Luck Club, and Blue Steel.
Now in many cases, Stone wore all three hats, or just two out of the three. Still, no matter how you look at it, Oliver Stone has been a major player in the culture of film; and we can certainly say that his work has been impactful.
This brings us to his latest film called Savages. It opened yesterday, July 6th. Yes, it is a tale about pot dealers having to face off against a Mexican Cartel. Yes, it will have a resemblance to Scarface, to Blow, to Carlito’s Way, and many others.
Savages has six main players, and two important supporting roles. On one side we have the pot grower/dealers. They have produced the best cannabis in the world. For those with a discerning taste, their weed goes for a mere $6000 a pound. Chon, is played by Taylor Kitsch who started the year with two losers called John Carter and Battleship. Here he’s an ex-Navy Seal and he did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He came home from the war with a jar of seeds.
His best pal, since they were kids, is Ben who is played by Aaron Johnson. I’m looking forward to his next film Anna Karenina – he plays Count Vronsky. In this one, he’s the botanist and he knows everything there is to know about hydroponics, or soil and sunlight, as well as the business side of pot. Hence their product was the best available anywhere and they even made it semi-legit as a good part of their agricultural business was selling legal medicinal herb.
Now these guys have removed about 99% percent of the risk in this business. For that sticky 1% they have Chon’s muscle and military skills. He’s the enforcer for the business.
By the way they also have a greedy DEA agent in their hip pocket. That would be John Travolta as Dennis. Chon and Ben pay this guy for information and protection which is how Dennis lives way, make that far above his pay grade. As Travolta plays Dennis – you basically won’t like him on first sight. From there it goes downhill. Travolta looks heavy, and Dennis is a bit of a motormouth as well as a man of immeasurable greed.
Our dynamic twosome is actually a threesome. Blake Lively plays ‘O’ short for Ophelia. Now O is in love with both of them, and they all live in a idyllic home overlooking the ocean in Laguna Beach – which is in their words – a paradise. As O tells us in the narration – yes, she’s with both of them.
Into this slice of heaven on earth, an emailed video is sent. Basically it is sent to them as a warning and an invitation. They should pay strict attention because what happens in this video could happen to them. The video also includes a text message – By the way we’d like to discuss some business with you at a meeting tomorrow.
This is the first contact with the Mexican cartel. This cartel is smart enough to know a good thing when they see it – and they want to partner up with our boys. 80/20 is the split but really they’re demanding 20% of the business for which they’ll promise to help grow the business substantially or was it exponentially? Their terms are simple – it is just a three-year deal. Everyone would benefit.
Ben doesn’t want to do business with these guys – so he says – we’ll just step aside – you can have the whole business. We’d rather not be partners with you. Nothing personal.
Of course this is not what Alex (Demián Bichir) – the cartel’s front man – and Lado (Benicio Del Toro) – the cartel’s enforcer want to hear. They say that their employer will not be pleased and that their employer will take it as a personal affront. This employer is Elena (Salma Hayek). She’s at the very top of the cartel’s pyramid.
The cartel suggests that Chon and Ben take some time to reconsider, and that they’ll meet again in 24 hours. The boys ask for 48 hours. Uh uh. Not happening. Wait for our call. The boys leave.
The boys take a long while to reconsider and to make love with Ms Lively’s O, and to smoke some weed. Dennis is consulted and he suggests they take the deal rather than the alternative which could be decapitation. Dennis suggests that they are a the equivalent of a specialty boutique and the cartel is in that context – as big as Walmart – and you don’t mess with Walmart. The boys have a computer whiz/financial expert – basically he launders their money (at exorbitant rates) – and he lays out their $$$ situation for them.
So the plan is hatched. They’ll run for it. Living on the beach in Indonesia is the plan. But O doesn’t have her passport handy. It is at her Mother’s house. So she’ll have to go get it, and as long as she’s out – she’ll do some last-minute shopping. Bad mistake. Her security detail is intercepted by a traffic cop – and before you can say ‘Bad Mistake’ a second time – O is kidnapped and is in the hands of Lado. This can’t be a good thing.
So much for the set up. Chon and Ben will spend the rest of the film trying to get O back . Oliver Stone will spend the rest of the film asking us to ponder a very difficult question – to what degree of savagery will you go to in order to save some one you love?
Despite my build up of Stone’s credentials as a legend in film for his efforts as a Director/Writer/Producer – this film is far below his usually standards. Very far below to be a bit more specific.
First, Stone employs O to do the voice over narrative. Right away she’ll say something like – Just because I’m telling you all this doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of the story. I wasn’t enamored of that. From what we can see – Ben, Con, and O spend much of their time getting high on their own supply or having sex. Their lives seem far too easy.
Now on the other side of the street – Stone has set us up to have an immediate distrust of any Mexican’s we see in pick up trucks. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but Stone shows us these pickup trucks at least three times, and every time we see them, someone’s going to die, so he is making that point. The big boss Elena wears designer clothing , expensive jewelry, and costly wigs – all of the time. She’ll later tell O (over dinner – see image below) that she’d have no problem cutting Ben and Chon throats.
The only thing we learn about her is that she is less than a perfect Mom.
As for Alex and Lado – they fit nicely into pre-ordained slots. As does Elena. Alex is well dressed and well spoken. He’s smart, urbane, and is the perfect front man for the cartel’s investments stateside. On the other hand, Lado is exemplary as the films bad guy. Del Toro’s Lado will make your skin crawl. There’s nothing he won’t do.
From another perspective, and it is almost impossible to not make the connections – Stone has borrowed heavily from Scarface for which he wrote the screenplay. Lado is much like Tony Montana, only much worse. Montana was a thug who fought and clawed his way up in the milieu of the drug business in Miami. He achieved all the trappings – vast wealth, home, cars, clothes, and even the beautiful trophy wife. But as much as he tried, Montana would never fit into the fabric of society.
Lado isn’t interested in fitting in. His desires are almost all simply about pleasures of the flesh, and drugs. If he could satisfy his most base desires – he was happy. And one more thing, Lado wasn’t about loyalty either. To him money was only good for supporting his desires. With one exception – he really didn’t need money to kill. He simply enjoyed doing it.
So Stone sets up this fight to the death between the cartel and Chon and Ben. You watch the film – and you might say that’s awful – meaning you’re repelled by the violence. Make no mistake about it – there’s plenty of violence. There are no shortages when it comes to a body count.
Where there are shortages – we can lay this off on Stone – they come in the measure of the film-maker to tell us the story honestly. The characters are almost universally paper-thin. There’s no depth to them. While you are on the side of Ben and Chon – it’s not as if you had a choice. You root for them because you know that rooting for the bad guys is impossible. But when the good guys become just as savage as the bad guys – we as the viewers find ourselves in a quandary. This isn’t supposed to happen. So that question of to what level of savagery would you go to save or protect those who you love begins to percolate again in your mind.
But back to the film maker telling us the story honestly. Stone is not above giving us the ultimate deception in this film. I think the ending of the film is about as bad an ending that you’ll ever see. It boggles the mind actually to see such a highly regarded film auteur use such tactics. From the outset it was Chon and Ben and O. But when things got dicey, O had a security detail. When out in the field, or more accurately I should say, when out on the killing fields, Ben and Chon had a small platoon of snipers, and munitions experts behind them. These guys were explained in a throwaway manner – they were Chon’s buds from his days in Afghanistan. Oh. How convenient.
Time to wrap this review up. I could probably give you some more things that I didn’t care for, but I’ll not do that. Instead I’ll call the film quite disappointing. Not surprisingly I’m giving this film only a three-point zero out of five. It does involve you, and the ultimate question that the film asks is interesting. But for me, Stone recycled plenty from Scarface, was less than honest in telling the story, and really – none of the characters would pass the white glove test. Meaning no matter which character you looked at – you’re going to get tarnished. Maybe that was the whole point. We are all savages. Oh, okay Oliver. If you say so.
PS: If you think the film’s poster seems familiar – you’d be right. Check out the poster for the film Babel.
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