Oliver Stone was once a political provocateur, an accusatory and wildly ambitious finger-pointer who attacked the American political, cultural, and societal landscape with fearless bravado. Some of his better pictures—Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July—were gripping exposés charged by the fury and passion of post-Vietnam disillusionment and post-Watergate governmental malcontent. While even his follies—JFK and Natural Born Killers—reached for the stratosphere before collapsing under the weight of their own pretentions and self-righteousness. In either case, Stone was—with Spike Lee—the most formidable American cinematic loudmouth of the late 80’s and 90’s, someone with a point of view and something to say—an Important director.
These days, his soapbox cinema has lost much of its relevance. His recent films W. (the George W. Bush biopic) and World Trade Center were, respectively, an inert stab at controversy and a run-of-the-mill disaster flick that happened to be about a world-altering calamity—it was Backdraft: The 9/11 Version. With Savages, it is now clear that Stone’s famous flag burning has all but been extinguished, at least for now. Even considering its references to the war in Afghanistan, the war on drugs, corrupt cops, and Internet streaming, this movie’s about as politically driven as something directed by Robert Rodriguez. Yet from Stone, who’s usually such a restless muckraker, Savages arrives as something of a bloody treat, never void of mindless entertainment value. There are disposable joys to be had in this ultimately muddled but always alluring saga of cross-boarder drug violence.
In its auspicious first minutes, the movie introduces us to its central figures: a high-functioning love triangle made up of narrator Ophelia (Black Lively), philanthropist Ben (Aaron Johnson), and war veteran Chon (Tayor Kitsch). A partnership of Laguna Beach marijuana cultivators and distributors, who guarantee the most potent stuff in the world, Ben and Chon share Ophelia—or “O”—like Butch and Sundance shared Katharine Ross, except that this movie is from the girl’s perspective. She describes Chon as the love of her life and then Ben, mere moments later, as the other love of her life. In her eyes, Ben’s the sensitive lover who uses his drug money to finance clean water programs in Africa. And Chon’s the tormented man’s man with a perpetual beef, a stressed out soldier that has not orgasms but “wargasms”. According to O, combined they’re the perfect man. The film’s libertine polygamous trio could anchor a great film all on their own, but Stone has a whole annoyingly busy plot to churn through, and the thematic promise they arouse is quickly tossed before a hail of bullets.
The boys are strong-armed into selling their business to a Tijuana cartel run by Salma Hayek’s sexy Latina jefe, Elena Sanchez. Stone deliberately reveals a forlorn mommy-dearest burrowed underneath Elena’s dictatorial crime boss persona, granting his wicked witch some dimensionality, to good effect. The only person that gets the better of her is the reticent Magda (Sandra Echeverria), her ashamed offspring hiding out in California. To coerce Ben and Chon, Elena calls on her sleaziest underling, Lado, played by a scene-stealing Benicio Del Toro as the most disturbingly charismatic and darkly funny criminal enforcer you’re likely to encounter onscreen. He’s a proudly repugnant psychopath in a Cheech Marin stash who loves to small talk his hits before pulling the trigger. He gags his torture victims because he “doesn’t like the screaming.” In a sick way, he’s as personable as he is depraved. Then there’s John Travolta’s crooked DEA agent Dennis, a nervous snake-in-the-grass who knows that the drug war is a game that can be won by playing for every team. He’s got a wife in hospice he can’t stop nattering about—another instance of humanity graced upon the monstrous.
Quickly, the bad guy’s in Savages become far more interesting than the heroes who, as individuals, grow tiredly one-note. Kitsch’s Chon is a glowering tough guy with nary a beat change. Johnson’s Ben comes to life only momentarily when forced to participate for the first time in his profession’s inherent violence. He shows some genuine squeamishness, but little personality beyond that. And once the merger sours and O is captured by the cartel and held as leverage, the film becomes too chockablock to even begin fleshing out its protagonists. Although Lively turns in a better performance as a captive stealthily struggling to win her captors’ favor, the three are best when they’re together, which is seldom. Despite this, the picture remains highly watchable as a stylish and blood-soaked exploitation crime thriller and action movie that blends Blow, Alpha Dog, and Once Upon A Time In Mexico into a cool and sexy new gangster opus that can sit among them as posters on a freshman’s dorm room wall. Stone may have gone from moving the masses to pleasing bloodthirsty college kids, but he’s definitely got a knack for it. I never thought an Oliver Stone movie could be so much fun for having so little on its mind.