It’s never a good sign when the audience laughs during a film’s sinister moments, so if you’re expecting a high-stakes U Turn revival in director Oliver Stone’s latest, consider Savages a nice try. This time around, Stone teams with author Don Winslow (along with fellow screenplay writer Shane Salerno) to adapt his novel, a story of the polyamorous Ophelia, known as “O” (Blake Lively), a lost, upper-middle class gypsy type who falls for two weed-hustling best friends, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson). When the two refuse to make a deal with the Mexican drug cartel, queen bee Elena (Salma Hayek), kidnaps O in order to force them into compliance.
O serves as the sexual force that bonds violent Iraq War vet Chon and philanthropist hippie Ben together, and the creation of a nontraditional relationship is always appreciated. There’s no shortage of smoldering sex scenes to get your visceral blood pumping. In fact, such animalistic life-or-death copulation is part of what we love about Stone’s older works. However, while we are given a glimpse into each character’s past, their love story is highly underdeveloped. Sure, the sex is great, but rather than asymmetrical, their bond appears superficial. Ophelia’s disappearance thus becomes less than taxing, and the boys’ sense of urgency unconvincing.
This is also due to weak performances by both Lively (Gossip Girl) and Kitsch (John Carter). While Kitsch’s Chon is a glacial storm of anger, he fails to let his care for O surface in any palpable way. His character thus becomes more a monotonous ball of meat than a jaded war hero. Lively’s O, who narrates the film, is hardly sympathetic and rather, a flighty and privileged stoner who refuses to face reality (if only we could all spend our days getting high and filleting). And while many of Stone’s women come from troubled pasts, Lively’s glazed expression rarely yields a suffering pathos, as opposed the sincerity we’ve seen in her past roles, such as Glenda in Hick. While confined in her tiny cell, she yells a baffling line, “Can I at least get a salad and not pizza all the time?” Torture on, Elena, torture on.
Fear not, John Travolta’s corrupt cop Dennis, Benicio del Toro’s dopey beast of a cartel, and Salma Hayek’s knee-buckling Elena raise the project to calibre, as they play caricature to absurdity. Travolta’s Dennis is a So-Cal Santa Claus, and he gives perhaps his best performance since A Love Song for Bobby Long. Along with Emile Hirsch’s perverted fixed-gear financier Spin, these characters prove the film succeeds more notably in its polluted comedy than in its attempt at tragic bravado.
If anything, Savages seems to be a rich, beat-making college kid’s fantasy — dreads and hemp firmly intact. In an updated 2012 drug flick, the high rollers’ passions (Ben’s in particular) lie fittingly in sustainable energy. Of course, weed has never seemed to receive such a glamorous homage — in fact, it hasn’t been given such an addictive image since Reefer Madness. Again, while in her cell, O finally gets the chance to talk to Elena and asks for “something to take the edge off.” Is this pot we’re talking or opiates? While it is certainly believable that the friendly little green plant could cause this much distress, Stone’s creation of its exotic surrounding culture is almost as laughable as the drug’s effect itself; yet still, we are able to suspend disbelief and ride on through an arousing fantasyland.
It’s a shame that there hasn’t been more of an attempt to resurrect the Lolita-esque, Natural Born Killers pulp of films past, so one can’t help but writhe in pleasure at the sugary bone we’ve been tossed. Nostalgia can certainly be unearthed in the frosty aesthetic still found in the various highly saturated, blood-splattered frames, accompanied by a juiced up, head-bobbing soundtrack, brim full of Massive Attack remixes, a burning hot Bruce Lash cover of “Psycho Killer,” and don’t forget some Peter Tosh, for good measure. All qualities circa 1990′s Oliver Stone, yet despite the pounds of green, his usual substance has gone amiss.