It hasn't exactly been the best start of the millennium for Oliver Stone. After he pretty much owned late 80s and early 90s until Quentin Tarantino took his throne of "edgy filmmaker" (appropriate considering that Stone took Tarantino's script for Natural Born Killers and changed it to suit the movie he wanted to make), things kind of dropped off. I don't know where you folks stand on U Turn and Any Given Sunday, but I still like them, but it's pretty much the consensus that Stone fell off of the radar and started making movies that were at best "okay" after 2000.
First Stone tried to get in on the "somewhat historical sword and sandal" movement, post-Gladiator (this would include Troy, 300, and also Ridley Scott's other foray, Kingdom of Heaven) to less than desirable results. Alexander is pretty much a mess, and that goes for all three (four?) cuts that are out there - the action heavy / homoerotic removing "Director's Cut," the messy theatrical cut, and the "fuck it, here's a combination of the two" Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut. Honestly, I never saw the "Director's Cut" because it seemed silly to accentuate the action over Alexander the Great's relationships, but I saw the theatrical and final cuts. I guess the last one is the better of the two I saw, but it's no Gladiator, and Gladiator sure isn't Ben-Hur*.
I never saw World Trade Center and W. was okay but oddly toothless. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps had some pretty good performances but suffered from music choices and visual metaphors that were way to "on the nose." Look, it's cool if you want to cover the financial crisis using Gordon Gekko because in many ways this happened because stock brokers and traders decided to emulate Michael Douglas after Wall Street, but to have someone blow a bubble that floats up over the New York skyline and then bursts, followed by the stock numbers plummeting overlaid on the same skyline is laying it on a bit thick. And I'm being generous here, because people seemed to hate Money Never Sleeps and World Trade Center, while generally well reviewed, always gets forgotten when compared to United 93. And when was the last time you heard anyone mention W.?
This brings me to Savages, which is being touted as a "return to form" for Stone. For me, a return to form means we're looking at the guy who made Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July and JFK and Nixon and Salvador and Natural Born Killers and even though I don't really like it, The Doors. Because that Oliver Stone was at least interesting. And Savages is not quite that, but it is definitely a better movie than anything Stone's made since 1999 (or, if you really insist that Natural Born Football sucks, then 1994).
O is dating Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a veteran of Afghanistan and also probably Iraq who came back and started growing and selling weed with Ben (Aaron Johnson), who O is also dating. They have a happy little thing going on and a thriving business with their smuggled in from Afghanistan pot until a Mexican cartel sends them a message, in the form of a video of decapitated folks who said "no" to their business proposition. Ben is more of a zen kind of guy, who spends a lot of time around the world making things better, so he's amenable to making a deal. Chon, on the other hand, is still fixed in a mindset of hostility and sees the cartel trying to make a hostile takeover. He has some buddies he served with who provide security at a distance with sniper rifles keep an eye on their meeting, in case things get nasty.
The cartel sends Alex (Demian Bechir)to speak on behalf of the boss, Elena (Salma Hayek), and yeah, it's pretty much a "join us or we'll make your lives hell" kind of offer. Ben is hesitant, but Chon really angers Elena by saying "you want us to eat your shit and call it caviar," so things get testy. Elena also has Lado (Benicio del Toro), the muscle, who we meet killing a lawyer named Chad (Shea Wigham cameo) in what you could call a ruthless manner. Lado doesn't like Ben and Chon, so when the order comes down to kidnap O, he makes it his personal mission to keep an eye on her.
From that point on, the movie gets more interesting, which is not to say it wasn't before. It's just that if that were my entire review I could have skipped the movie and just recapped the trailer. The trailer sells it as just a kidnapping movie and that Ben and Chon are going to get her back and escalate the violence, Taken-style or something to that effect. But that's not really what happens in Savages.
Instead, the film takes some time to breathe and lets the characters get to know each other a little better. We get to know Ben and Chon more, which is good because otherwise it would be easier to characterize the film as "John Carter and Kick-Ass vs. Frida and The Wolf Man." Also, Elena gets to know O, in part because her own daughter Magda (Sandra Echeverría) doesn't want to have anything to do with her. In an interesting wrinkle, we first meet Magda while she's on the phone with her mother, shopping in the same mall O is about to be kidnapped from. Stone could have laid it on thick there but mostly the parallels between the two young women is kept in the background.
Also, I haven't mentioned sleazy DEA Agent Dennis, played by John Travolta. It's been a while since I've seen Travolta in anything, so I forgot just how good he can be in movies and not just as tabloid fodder. Here he's great as a corrupt agent playing more than one side, simultaneously feeding Ben and Chon information while plotting across the border in order to keep his pockets lined and his ass out of the line of fire. While ethically dubious I have to say I admire his ability to avoid the same fate as Chad on more than one occasion.
Stylistically I guess you could say that Savages is a little closer to the Oliver Stone of Natural Born Killers, but it's nowhere near as wild as that movie. Yes, sometimes it switches to black and white or goes slightly slow motion, and there's the juxtaposition of classical music with graphic violence, but more or less the film is told in a straightforward fashion. Where it's closer to Natural Born Killers is in the violence, where Savages really just does not hold back. There's a scene where Lado whips a guy until his eyeball pops out, and then the eye just hangs there for the rest of the scene until the mole is douse with gasoline, place inside of a tire, and then set ablaze by Ben (at Elena's bidding). It's not a sensationalized violence so much as the kind that makes you cringe a little, like when Lado blows off Chad's kneecaps (this would be more of a spoiler but Chad dies in the same scene we meet him early in the film).
So Savages is an entertaining, if violent movie. I like that both sides make their case about how the title applies to the other (again, not in a heavy handed way. I feel that's necessary after Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), and while I was expecting to enjoy the supporting cast I did end up liking Kitsch and Johnson and Lively as well. Good job, Oliver Stone - I did not see that coming. I also liked the smaller roles / cameos in the movie, like Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) as Ben and Chon's money launderer, Leonard Roberts (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Heroes) as O's security guy Hayes, and Joel David Moore** as a computer programmer who I don't think ever says anything in the film but you see him two or three times.
But as much as I'd like to close things out like that, I do feel like I should pull a switcheroo just like the ending of Savages. Well, I should say "endings" because there's a climactic shootout during a hostage exchange where pretty much everybody dies and then O says "that's how I imagined it would happen, anyway" and then abruptly jumps back to explain what DID happen, which makes more sense considering we had already seen the formulation of the plan earlier in the movie. It is kind of a cop-out, not only because Stone (and Winslow and Salermo) give you the emotionally satisfying conclusion you were probably expecting in its entirety only to pull the rug out, but also because it feels like they couldn't make up their minds.
Yes, O is unreliable and you set that up early on but if we're really going by that then how could we possibly have seen the conversation that sets up the actual ending of the movie? No one she communicates with was privy to it. I just took it that O was narrating parts of the movie but after a while the movie took over and we're just seeing the narrative presented to us not as O saw it but as it was unfolding. She can't possibly know half of the things we see, so you just get over the structure of film as flashback.
Anyway, so it's like they had two endings, couldn't decide which one they liked more (the "movie" ending or the "appropriate for the world of this movie" ending), so they decided to use both. And it detracts a little bit, especially when it goes on to these ambiguous statements about what happened afterward and what living like a "savage" means and O waxing the philosophical. It's not enough to derail Savages, but I have to say that the movie doesn't quite stick the landing. Otherwise I had fun watching it, cringed a little bit at the cruelty, and enjoyed the acting and direction. This is the kind of Oliver Stone I could get used to watching again - maybe not at the top of his game, but still making interesting movies that don't hold back so much.
* Fair? Maybe not, but it's hard to argue that this wave of historical "epics" doesn't in some fashion borrow heavily from Ben-Hur or Spartacus or Demetrius and the Gladiators.
** I guess most of you would say from Avatar, but since I haven't seen Avatar he's "Hatchet's Joel David Moore" to me.