Sunday, July 8, 2012

Oh My God! Nothing Civil About 'Savages'

Lively's voice carries the film's prologue with a simplistic narration that has her telling us, "I have orgasms. Chon has 'war-gasms.'" This in reference to Kitsch's character's military background and subsequent intensity (in and out of the bedroom). Narration aside, the beginning plays to Stone's strengths as we zip in and out of the present-day to show the threesome's origin. He's a master at conveying a lot with a lot of editing and when the story actually begins, the three main characters are already well-formed.

The violence of Savages manifests itself through all the characters but none better than Lado, the film's greatest asset. Lado (Benicio Del Toro) is a lieutenant in one of Mexico's two biggest cartels. He does the wet work for the boss, Elena (Salma Hayek), and drives nearly all the action. He's a charismatic sociopath in the vein of past Stone leading men like Tony Montana and Mickey Knox. He enjoys killing and, more than that, he needs it. Del Toro is magnetic in this role, provoking hatred but also empathy in a layered performance that could garner attention come awards-season next year. Nobody blows lines of coke in the movies quite like Del Toro.

Lado and another cartel high-up, Alex (Demian Bichir), pay Chon and Ben a visit and make them an offer they can't refuse: join us or else. When the two Americans present a counter-offer, O is kidnapped and the film shifts to 5th gear. The action sequences that push the narrative until the end are all heavily stylized. Stone, who influenced many of today's action-centric directors, returns to the frenzied editing, multiple-camera, multiple-format style of Natural Born Killers. Bothersome in the wrong hands, switching from a webcam to steady cam to black and white actually lends itself well to Savages. The frantic pace of the script warrants the quick camera-work.

Stone also paces the action with smart details that either further the coming scene or serve as a juxtaposition of absurdity (like showing a roller-blader crashing hilariously into a wall). All the puzzle pieces fit. The soundtrack is reliably all over the place, mixing Adam Peters' score with songs from Bob Dylan, M. Ward, but also Peter Tosh and a treat: a haunting version of "Psycho Killer" by Bruce Lash. Cinematographer Dan Mindel's camera is drenched in the sunlight of Orange County. This is a California movie and thus, part of the new guard of postmodern westerns.

The end of the film is a bit of a cop-out and fans of the book will not be pleased, but it doesn't ruin the film. If anything, it's in line with what's preceded it. O tells us from the beginning she may not be alive when the story ends so the unreliable narrator keeps us off-balance and ready for anything. The real story here, however, is the return of Oliver Stone. Savages may not be one of his five best films, but it proves the director has still got it.

It isn't Oliver Stone's fault he hasn't made a movie like this since the Clinton administration. Was he supposed to just sit back and make dopey movies while 9/11, George W. Bush, and imminent recession were on front pages every day? Since Any Given Sunday in 1999, Stone has made a 9/11 movie (World Trade Center), a Bush movie (W.), and a financial crisis movie (Wall St: Money Never Sleeps). He's a filmmaker who loves to stir the proverbial shit storm with films rarely without purpose or message. His latest, Savages, does highlight the violence typical of modern Mexican drug cartels, but Stone and his writers keep the story out of the realm of political/social issues.

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Don Winslow, Savages was co-written by the author, along with Stone and Shane Salerno. Unable to capture the novel's sarcastic humor, their script plays out more conventionally than one might guess. The heroes, best friends Chon and Ben (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson), run a potent and profitable cannabis grow operation in Laguna Beach, CA. The boys are polar opposites but share a girlfriend, Ophelia (Blake Lively), nicknamed "O" and live the good life.

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