Del Toro salvages Savages

The 21st century has yet to see an Oliver Stone film join his list of classics, which includes Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and JFK.  The much derided Alexander, the toothless W. and the Wall Street sequel no one asked for have done the famed director’s legacy no favours.  Now returning with Savages, Stone continues to treat the waters of mediocrity with an uneven drama drenched in unintentional comedy.  Yet, his star-studded cast and visual flare manages to salvage a film that by all rights should have been dead on arrival the moment Blake Lively speaks of “wargasms” within the opening minutes .

“Gossip Girl” Lively narrates the tale of warring drug cartels at various points throughout Savages.  Her monotonous delivery of some of the worst dialogue to be heard in 2012 provides a poor open, despite being set against views of beautiful Californian vistas.  Taylor Kitsch’s intense war veteran Chon (he of the aforementioned “wargasms”) and Aaron Johnson’s hippy philanthropist Ben together grow the finest marijuana in the land.  So fine is it, that a Mexican cartel aims to take over their operation, whether the odd couple like it or not.  Lively is the shared lover of the two who becomes a pawn in a chess match of high consequence.  Allegiances are tested as each side attempts to outsmart the other.  The plot goes to great lengths to appear intelligent, but the clumsy (and frankly embarrassing) dialogue renders it anything but.  Thankfully, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek and John Travolta are on-hand for some serious scenery chewing that transforms Savages into quite a guilty pleasure.

While Hayek relishes in the steely nature of drug baron Elena, it is Del Toro who steals the show with his wild-eyed, macho-hombre Lado.  As Elena’s enforcer, he’s established as a force to be reckoned with, but as the film progresses, Del Toro’s performance becomes increasingly over-the-top.  By the end of Savages, it’s nearly impossible to not be completely won over by his mannerisms.  In terms of actual character development, it makes zero sense for Lado to become increasingly amusing, but there’s a sense of Del Toro, for whatever reason, really letting go and having the kind of fun with the role that becomes infectious.  Perhaps he became as tired as anyone of the trite exchanges intended to be taken as deeply reflective.  Travolta, too, leaves subtlety in the dust as a senior DEA agent on the take, whilst looking like an aged, crew-cut sporting Gigolo Joe.  As for the leads, Kitsch’s black hole of charisma is exploited to convincingly exhibit Chon’s charmless demeanour, while Johnson provides an adequate west coast stoner stereotype.  Lively is wholly forgettable and entirely overshadowed by the screen presence of her co-stars.  Beyond her looks, Lively offers little to the film.

Savages may somehow manage to be both goofy and pretentious, but Stone’s knack for eye-catching composition, both onset and in post production, makes the low points easier to swallow.  It’s also worth noting how impactful each gunshot is.  Too often filmmakers utilise firearms so carelessly that when a bullet finds its mark, the impression is rather ho-hum, but Savages gets it spot on.  Yet, it’s odd how much Savages feels like a poor knock-off of early Quentin Tarantino.  With a Western-tinged climax, oddball characters, and a healthy taste for violence, Stone’s adaptation of Don Winslow’s novel evokes memories of Tarantino’s finest period, but in doing so, also seems dated.  An unnecessary twist in the final act means that Savages outstays its welcome, but even that isn’t entirely without absurd enjoyment to be had.

On the whole, Savages’ is engaging enough, despite lacking in originality and running 20 minutes too long.  Stone owes a great debt to Del Toro and Hayek for at least raising Savages to a so-bad-it’s-good level. There’s no redeeming the horrible dialogue, but their performances radiate with villainous insanity.  The wait for the arrival of a great Stone film in this century continues, but Savages does manage to entertain, even if there are plenty of reasons to hate it.  For Stone, it’s a step in the right direction.  7/10

Savages is in UK cinemas 21 September

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