PLOT: Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are a study in contrasts. Chon, a former Navy SEAL is a hard man- cold as steel, and quick to violence. Ben on the other hand is gentle, kind, and a thinker- not a doer. Together, this unlikely duo have cornered the market on marijuana in Laguna Beach California, and share a gorgeous girlfriend, O (Blake Lively). But- Chon & Ben's business has caught the attention of the Mexican cartel, run by the cold-blooded Elena (Salma Hayek) and her chief enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro), who- to convince Ben & Chon to join the cartel, kidnap O. In order to get her back, Ben & Chon will need to become SAVAGES!
REVIEW: Don Winslow's novel, SAVAGES is my HUNGER GAMES. A year ago, I breezed through this thing in about a day, and since then I've been following the development of this movie slavishly. Everything about it seemed to suggest that this would be the film to nail Winslow (his earlier novel, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF BOBBY Z was butchered). Oliver Stone seemed a natural to direct this, having written the all-time king coke epic, SCARFACE, and the cast seemed to be shaping up nicely. But, as much as it pains me to say this- something really got lost in the translation...
But, while the film version of SAVAGES pales compared to the book, there's still enough here that's salvageable, and makes this a film worth catching. In fact, if you haven't read the book, as I'm sure the majority of folks haven't (it's a cult book- and wasn't a major seller), you'll probably quite like this as it seems like a nice return to form for Oliver Stone. Uniquely for a guy who's films increasingly tend to preach rather than entertain, the aim of SAVAGES seems only to be to entertain, and in that regard it's probably Stone's best all-around film since ANY GIVEN SUNDAY (although the recent WALL STREET sequel certainly had it's moments).
There are things about it that are perfect . For one, Benicio Del Toro nails the part of Lado, a vicious enforcer who has to balance his blood lust with his more pragmatic side. With a pompadour mullet, and a permanently bemused expression and tone of voice, Del Toro is magnetic. In fact, he's maybe too good, as whenever he's off-screen, you're waiting for him to come back. Ditto John Travolta, in a gem of a part as a crooked DEA agent on everyone's payroll. Travolta hasn't been this good in a long time, and the expanded nature of his part is one of the few deviations from the novel that I really liked. Salma Hayek also seems like a good fit for the Griselda Blanco- ish Elena, and it's certainly a departure for her, that she pretty much nails.
Of course, with a veteran cast this good, the younger stars are going to pale in comparison, but for the most part they hold their own. While he's had a tough year, Taylor Kitsch is pretty ideal as Chon, perfectly embodying the quiet cool that made him so memorable on the page. Physically, Stone's turned him into a behemoth, with his muscular, JOHN CARTER look seeming puny by comparison. Aaron Johnson, a great actor in his own right, does indeed pale a little as Ben, in that he seemed a bit too whiny, and spacey. In fact, Emile Hirsch, who nails a small role as their number cruncher Tires, seems like he would have been better in the part. Still, Johnson's not particularly bad, but he just doesn't measure up with the rest of the cast. Ditto Blake Lively as O, who seemed perfect for the part when her casting was announced, but for me- just seemed a little out of sorts, and too conservative to play the wild-child O. It doesn't help that she's settled with pages and pages of bad narration, which- to be fair, has been pulled verbatim out of the book, but worked a lot better on the page than on the screen.
Shortcomings aside, for about ninety percent of SAVAGES I was having a good time with it, and if you asked me before the climax what I thought of it, I'd say it was a pretty good film version of an amazing book. But, in the climax, Stone blows it big time. For those that have read the book, I have to tell you, Stone tries to have his cake and eat it too, and the effect is atrocious to the point that I just about couldn't stop myself from crying out “what the fuck?” Changing the ending isn't a huge deal. A book and a film that cost tens of millions are two wildly different things, and considering the hardcore violence (Stone doesn't shy away from the R-rating), SAVAGES was more savage than you'd think. But, the ending, in an effort to be “clever” just about ruins the film- and it's a shame, as Stone could have had a winner here if he had just chosen to go one way or the other- rather than compromise in a shockingly clumsy way.
So- it all comes down to whether or not I can recommend SAVAGES. For me, this is a lot like Danny Boyle's film version of Alex Garland's THE BEACH, in that there's enough good about it to make it an alright film, but there was the potential to be so much more if some bad decisions hadn't been made along the way. But, as our own The Arrow told me after the screening, “it's not a sequel, it's not a remake, and it's a hard-R” and in that regard it should be respected. It's a pretty good movie, but- I'm sorry to say that even if you haven't read the book, the ending will likely be a deal-breaking piss-off.
|Extra Tidbit:||Savages has the best first chapter I've ever read. If perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the book. Points to whoever in the talkbacks can transcribe the whole thing. Hint- it won't take more than 5 seconds.|