Sunday, July 29, 2012

SAVAGES: Sleazy, Cheesy Action


I love a good grim n' gritty, down n' dirty crime flick - and so I was very open-minded and hopeful going into Savages. Especially in the summer, when so many of the big blockbuster films tend to be sci-fi and fantasy, it would be a nice change of pace to dive headlong into the violent world of drug trafficking, cartel warfare, and nihilistic conflict that the film seemed to promise. And Savages delivers in terms of grimy atmosphere and sleaze-soaked violence. Director Oliver Stone ably juggles a strong cast of actors through a labyrinth of crime, and elicits some great performances from the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, and more. Still, Savages ends up feeling less substantial and less memorable than it should be. The tone is stylized but not in a way that particularly resonates - in the effort to be an ultra-slick crime flick, it never seems to go quite far enough. And the story takes a lot of left turns, but few of the twists are as impactful as you'd hope for. What carries the film are the performances. But neither the style nor the substance of the film seem to go all the way towards reaching their potential. Somewhere at this movie's core, it seems to want to make a Heart of Darkness-style statement about human nature and our propensity towards mutually-assured destruction. But SAVAGES ends up being mostly surface-level entertainment - good performances and cool moments, but not much meat to really chew on.

I do admire the fact that the plot and characters of Savages are a bit unusual for this type of story. Certainly, the main love triangle at the center of the film is not something you see a lot of - a three-way polyamorous relationship in which two best friends share a mutual lover. The two men in question are Ben (Aaron Johnson), and Chon (Taylor Kitsch). Ben is a zen-spouting hippie who has gotten into the drug game because he just enjoys growing the stuff. His partner in crime, Chon, is an ex-soldier who is in it more for the thrill and the violence. Their companion, O (Blake Lively), is a sultry, still-finding-herself rich girl who seems to enjoy having the yin and the yang of both men at her constant beck and call. O narrates the film, and while Lively mostly does a good job here, some of the dialogue she's given is really, really groan-worthy - from the school of trying-way-too-hard-to-sound-hard-boiled, and instead, just sounding ridiculous. I guess there's sort of a Point Break, cheesy SoCal noir vibe here - and there is something sort of entertaining about seeing these annoying, overprivileged white dudes act the part of badasses. What makes it work is, I think, that the movie semi-acknowledges that the leads are a bit annoying, and therefore relishes letting us root for its vile yet charismatic badguys.

And it's the badguys who steal the show in the film (well, really every character is a "badguy" in the movie, but I'll get to that in a bit). Benicio Del Toro is the #1 reason to check this movie out. As Lado, the cool-as-a-cucumber, hyper-violent, sadistic muscle of a Mexican drug cartel at war with Ben and Chon, Del Toro is awesome. He makes Lado into one evil S.O.B. Yet Lado is so blatant in his savagery and so nonchalant with his sadism that he sort of grows on you. Similarly, Salma Hayek is a lot of fun as the matriarch of the cartel, Elena. Elena is a fun character - as ruthless as Lado, yet also with a tragic side to her. As we learn her backstory, the character becomes surprisingly multidimensional. That helps to make Elena a fun villain - and her and Lado make for an entertainingly loathsome duo. I'll also give props to John Travolta. Though I'm sick of the man's real-life sketchiness, I'll admit that his performance here is one of his best in a while. As a sleazy cop-on-the-take, who plays both sides of the drug war against each other, Travolta brings his A-game and turns in an excellent performance. Finally, I'll mention Demian Bechir - so amazing in last year's A Better Life. Here, he's a business-suit-clad lieutenant of Elena. Though the part is somewhat small, Bechir gives it a unique degree of gravitas.

Of course, a big point of the film is how the cycle of violence perpetuates. We're made to think we should be rooting for Ben and Chon in their drug war with the cartel - but soon enough, the duo has killed as many men, and been nearly as ruthless and treacherous, as the brutal cartel they've been in conflict with. There is the opportunity to make a pretty profound statement here, but the movie never really explores its central themes in any truly meaningful way. Hell, the title of the movie implies a lot in and of itself (they're all savages - something that is said and hinted at many times throughout the movie's running time) - but again, the movie is usually trying too hard for Tarantino-style cool to spend time on serious reflection. So again, Savages is caught between trying to be a stylized grindhouse flick and a more thoughtful meditation on the drug wars, and the neverending cycle of violence they perpetuate.

Again, there are some great individual moments from the cast - particularly Hayek and Del Toro. But the plot never quite comes together in a meaningful or affecting manner. Without spoiling anything, the ending of the film, filled with fake-outs and twists, confirmed for me that the movie lacked direction. Meaning: none of the possible endings were all that compelling to begin with, because the build-up was simply lacking. The film sets up a number of interesting plot threads, but it just seems to lose interest in a lot of them as it goes on. For example, I thought there could have been something really interesting in the way that Ben evolves from a man of peace into a cold-blooded warrior like his compatriot Chan. But his transformation unfolds without a ton of insight into his inner conflict or mindset. To that end, I also never felt like we had a complete handle on his relationship with Chon. The movie has some eyebrow-raising scenes where it's hinted that, perhaps, the two have a relationship involving more than friendship -- but it's never fully explored. Many characters in the film remark how odd the three-way relationship between Ben, Chon, and O is - but we as viewers don't really have more insight into it - we too are left guessing. Kitsch and Johnson are both good in the film - each looks the part and adds something to the character ... but they aren't given a ton to work with.

In any case, between the continuing horrors of the real-life drug war, and the examination of the drug trade in shows like Breaking Bad - I feel like there's certainly a lot of fertile and fascinating ground for a movie like SAVAGES to cover ... and I found myself getting into the film whenever it delved into the ins and outs of the conflict and its various players. And yet ... Stone and company only seemed half-interested in that part of the film, and at times seemed more concerned with Natural Born Killers-esque grotesqueness and ultraviolence. Savages occasionally fires on all cylinders, but it can also feel tonally inconsistent and thematically shallow at times. Worth a watch for Hayek and Del Toro, but ultimately, this isn't the epic crime drama  it could have been. Instead, it's an entertaining-if-occasionally-cheesy action flick.

My Grade: B

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