"Savages" needs refinement
I won't lie: I had really high hopes for "Savages."
Oliver Stone's latest directorial work looked like it had the potential to be every bit the tense, visceral crime thriller I and the summer movie season were yearning for after wading through a sea of reboots, adaptations and tired sequels. Sadly, our collective hopes were dashed on the rocks with this deceptively promising venture.
"Savages" tells the story of two precocious and enterprising pot dealers (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) who run afoul of a sinister Mexican drug cartel run by queenpin Elena (Salma Hayek) and enforced by the deliciously vile Lado (Benicio Del Toro). To persuade the boys to sign on as a subsidy of the cartel's empire, Elena kidnaps O (Blake Lively), their shared lover and the audience's pernicious narrator.
Stone ("Born on the Fourth of July," "Natural Born Killers") is no stranger to controversy and violence, so it seems odd that he'd approach "Savages" with such inconsistency. At the outset, this new venture seems to be all the gritty, sensationalist underworld revelry the trailers hyped. Certainly, it's tempered with a fair amount of morbidly twisted cartel-style executions and that whole free love thing, but most of the movie is driven more by the pot-peddling duo's desire to reclaim their beloved O.
O (short of Ophelia) isn't exactly an easy person to root for. As a character she does very little to move things along, and she spends more time whining than doing anything productive. While her kidnapping sets the main action into motion, the rest of her time on screen really only makes her look like she's more trouble than she's worth. As the story's omniscient narrator, she provides a helpful detail here and there, but mostly it cheapened the movie with its YA novel-style play-by-play. I couldn't help but feel most of the understandability she brought to the table could have been better achieved with a few simple workarounds.
Further detracting from what looked – on the outset – to be a very female-driven cast is Hayek's turn as Elena. As the head of the biggest drug-peddling operations in Mexico, Elena spends a lot of the movie pulling strings from the center of her network. She runs her lackeys with all the cold, ruthlessly strategic precision of a spider, and for the first half of the movie she's a wicked gem. But, once her web starts unraveling, Elena quickly loses her cool, making the audience lose all respect for her and leaving us to wonder how she managed to control this empire for so long.
Still, what matters most is the story. And at its best, "Savages" delivers a brutal, action-packed and even morbidly funny one. Sadly, much of what could have been excellent about it was cluttered and stunted by excessive plot development and unnecessary exposition that broke up the action and rendered what should have been a tension-building climb a sputtering roller coaster of frustration. And, just when you think the ride is over, the movie throws you for one more seriously amateurish loop not even worthy of the DVD's special features.
I wish I had better things to say about "Savages." Its potential is there – Kitsch, Johnson and Del Toro especially did stellar jobs of making the most of what they were dealt. Unfortunately for them and to the detriment of the movie as a whole, the good was not enough to redeem the bad – it's only enough to tease the audience with what could have been.
Theaters and showtimes for Savages
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