Savages

Oliver Stone’s dazed confusion.

You’d think the discipline of genre would be a tonic for Oliver Stone, quelling his well-known artistic demons. You’d think. But don’t think that going into Savages, Ollie’s oddly off-the-beat new movie. It’s a bloody drug-war story, set in California and Mexico, and it gets underway with style and energy; but clouds of narrative confusion begin to gather early on, and at the end they blot out the sky.

The movie is based on a novel by Don Winslow, who wrote the script with his partner Shane Salerno and—part of the film’s problem, possibly—Stone himself. It begins, after some grippingly lurid opening carnage, in the laid-back Orange County surf town of Laguna Beach, where longtime friends Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch, fully recovered from John Carter) live in a luxury pad high above the breakers with their mutual girlfriend Ophelia (Blake Lively), affectionately known as O.

Ben, a neo-hippie botanist and business head, and Chon, a former Navy SEAL, have built a sprawling marijuana empire around a custom-bred strain of high-powered weed. They’ve made millions. But now the violent Baja drug cartel, headquartered in Tijuana, has made known its intention to expand across the border and move in on Ben and Chon’s operation. It has emailed some gruesome video footage to demonstrate what could happen to them if they resist. Gentle Ben, who has used part of his fortune to finance good works in Africa and Asia, is not averse to getting out of the marijuana trade; but Chon, with his extensive collection of weaponry and squad of on-call combat buddies, is not a man to be pushed around. When the cartel kidnaps O as a negotiating pawn, he knows, to Ben’s dismay, what has to be done, and a crooked DEA agent named Dennis (a blustery John Travolta) is dragged in to help them do it.

Stone sets up the early Laguna Beach scenes with his customary skill: idyllic shots of sand, sea, and surfers scored to shimmering guitar chords, and braced with a jolt of sweaty sex involving Chon and O (whom we later see joined in carnal exertion by Ben). Complications arise with the introduction of the cartel principals: a team of envoys led by a lawyer named Alex (Demián Bichir); a vicious enforcer called Lado (Benicio Del Toro, recessively magnetic); the powerful dealer Elena (Salma Hayek in a black Bettie Page wig, for some reason), who Skypes into the story from Tijuana; and another drug boss called El Azul (Joaquin Cosio). The relationships among these characters are unclear at first, prefiguring a number of future confusions—a pair of malevolently tender scenes with Lado and O, and an attack signal from Chon to his heavily armed cohorts—that don’t pay off.

The movie’s accumulating bewilderments might be due to the heavy editing required to reduce it to a manageable length (scenes shot with Uma Thurman as Ophelia’s mother were eliminated altogether). It’s too bad Stone was determined to allow way too much time for the movie’s idiotic conclusion, which provoked snorts of disbelief at the screening I attended and which retrospectively trashes all that’s come before it. Savages has some strong performances, and it could have been a tight, punchy little crime thriller. But it gropes for coherence throughout, and at the end the director simply runs it off the rails. You wonder if Stone was sampling his own product.

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.

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  • ||

    Blake Lively's ass in a bathtub is reason enough to see this movie.

  • ||

    Just DVR the commercial, pause at appropriate time. You can send me the $20 I just saved you.

  • James Otis||

    He said "see" it, not pay for it.

  • ||

    The pirated cam torrets will not do that Ass justice.

    You will have to wait for the DVD rip to hit pirates bay. 4 months?

  • Taco||

    you will see a lot more of Tim Riggins' ass then Blake Lively's

  • John||

    Two douche bag white boys take on the Mexican drug cartels and win. For real? You have to be kidding me. And they wouldn't have kidnapped the chick. they would have either cut her head off. Ten seconds into the trailer you can tell this movie is ridiculous.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Hey, one of the douchebags was a SEAL. That's good enough justification for an action movie hero beating the odds. You're just holding Stone to the wrong standards.

  • John||

    Last I looked SEALS were not bullet proof. And against large numbers of people they get their ass kicked. If you don't believe me go talk to the SEALS who tried to take down that airport in Panama or got caught on that mountain in Afghanistan.

  • BakedPenguin||

    SEALs are essentially military SWAT teams. Sniper-scouts would have been a better choice, but almost no one really knows about them.

  • John||

    They are not even supposed to be that. they are supposed to be under water demolition teams. Then they are supposed to be reconnaissance and training of local fighters. That is their mission. But they are the only Navy ground force. So service rivalry gets them into shit they shouldn't be in.

  • R C Dean||

    Ya know, if I was one of our elite fighters who wasn't a seal (Delta Force, etc.), I'd probably be pretty peeved that the SEALs suck up all the publicity.

    Not to mention that, for swabbies, they sure don't get their feet wet very often. Since when do Navy pukes fight in the mountains, anyway?

  • John||

    They are media whores. And interestingly enough have been involved in the two biggest dibacles of the last 25 years in the special ops community, the airport in Panama disaster and the mountain top in Afghanistan.

    SEALS keep getting the idea that they can take on company sized units with crew serve weapons. Not a good idea. Rangers do that not SEALS.

  • tarran||

    They are media whores.

    Where the hell do you get that crazy idea? ;)

  • JW||

    An old neighbor of mine was this very cute/hot 20-something woman, who was about as girly-girl as you got. She was getting her MD through the Army and was stationed at Walter Reed; her hubby eventually did the same thing.

    One day she came home in her fatigues, which she only wore at home on rare occasions. She was a captain and had a Ranger patch on the shoulder.

    It amused me greatly that this petite, very cute woman, who seemed that she would fuss over a broken nail, could kill me with her bare hands or any other range of weapons.

  • John||

    She was lying. Women are not allowed to go to Ranger school. Whatever she had, it was not a Ranger tab or she had no business wearing it.

  • ||

    Vasquez?

  • R C Dean||

    Could she have been attached to the Rangers as a unit medic or something?

  • Mensan||

    No.

  • Mensan||

    For clarification: Even if someone is attached or assigned to a Ranger battalion, if they haven't completed Ranger school, then they can't wear the tab.

  • ||

    It's worth pointing out that SOCOM commanders were responsible for the Panama debacle, which was so far outsized for a SEAL operation it was ridiculous, and which many of the actual SEALs involved reportedly objected to at the time and were overridden by their commanders. It's not like you get much say so when your betters tell you "go here, kill this".

    The Afghanistan debacle was different. The SEAL team in that instance was not supposed to be facing the kind of resistance they met - their decision to let the Afghan goat herders who discovered them run back to their village and rally an ambush team cost all but one of them their lives. Thank ROE and the fear of prosecution for that. The operation itself was supposed to be a fairly routine clandestine surveillance with a 4 man team. There wasn't any miscalculation in the planning there like in Panama. Conditions on the ground just deteriorated.

  • Redmanfms||

    Don't go letting facts get in the way of John's little dick SEAL hatred.

    Because, MEDIA WHORES!!!!!

    Like there haven't been dozens of movies made about the Green Berets, and at least 3 about 1st SFOD.

  • Hell's Librarian||

    SEALs are also a very hot subgenre in the romance novel industry. There seems to be a cultural fascination with them right now.

  • John||

    Better idea for a movie is a group of Special Ops guys gets together and robs drug dealers. They use off the self equipment to tap phones and run intel operations, and then plan raids to rob the gangs and slip off into the night. Since they are not a part of any organized crime group, the dealers have no idea who just robbed them.

  • R C Dean||

    One of the better ideas I've seen in awhile, John.

    On an unrelated note, when you have to whack all of Uma Thurman's scenes, you've got a production that has gone way off the rails.

  • sarcasmic||

    Whacking off Uma Thurman what?

  • ||

    Are you finished?

  • Raven Nation||

    Was this idea used in an episode of "The Shield"?

  • John||

    No idea. Never watched that show.

  • Carston||

    You should, it is definitely in my all-time top 5, and I watch way too much TV.

    Its pretty awesome, until you get it in your head that cops are actually out doing these things, then you have to hold back the vomit.

  • ||

    I think they used that idea for Burn Notice.

    In other(ing) news Uma Thurman is an overrated hack that I rarely find "believable" in her roles. Fucking "Kill Bill." First 5 minutes, (ok maybe 15 minutes, I just kept thinking my disbelief suspension can only go so far. "Q and U" can suck it. And I had to keep my mouth shut, because EVERYONE was so enamored with it.

    Full Disclosure, my suspension of disbelief goes very very very far.

  • Killazontherun||

    That rant gets a +1 even though I don't entirely agree with it because nothing about Kill Bill was meant to be believable including the acting which mimicked both the B martial arts flicks of the 70s and Japanese manga. But +1 because the passion seethed out of the text like it had been building steam over an excruciating decade of being held back.

  • Nyarlathotep||

    I'm one of those insane people who thinks Tarantino's best picture was "Jackie Brown" and that everything he's done since has been shit on a shingle.

  • R C Dean||

    I've liked her since Dangerous Liaisons. So there.

  • ||

    I've liked her since Dangerous Liaisons. So there.

    Same...but after "Even Cowgirls get the Blues" all bets are off.

  • ||

    C'mon man. The Shield was the best TV show of the last decade.

  • Gray Ghost||

    Better idea for a movie is a group of Special Ops guys gets together and robs drug dealers.

    This was pretty much the plot of one of Clancy's better novels, Without Remorse. Only it was one ex-SOG guy. Pretty dark book, on the all. I really like the twist in his later, The Teeth of the Tiger, where a Xe-type company uses their panoply of surveillance techniques to data mine companies and make a killing on the stock market from their inside info. Wonder if that's happened yet?

    I think you have to add Gothic Serpent to your list of US SpecOps fuck-ups, though that one wasn't on the SEALs (or at least, only the SEALs). ROE, I think, had a lot to do with the Paitilla airport disaster. Expand your timeline and we can include the four drownings, as well as the airdrop onto a defended field during Urgent Fury. It's still amazing to me that Ranger force wasn't annihilated in the air.

    Increased publicity generally means increased funding, which is worth everything to your run-of-the-mill Government empire-builder. I agree with you though that I think the two guys in this movie would last only long enough to die in a typically horrific manner. (Go see any of the sites specializing in narco news for video.) As for Boobs Leggsly's character, she'd only wish she were dead.

  • radar||

    Well, that's sort of Without Remorse, only Clark wasn't robbing them. He was killing them off one by one to avenge the murder of his reformed junkie girlfriend. And yeah, it was one of Clancy's best.

  • Virginian||

    Yep. I might reread that. It's up there with Patriot Games and Red Storm Rising for me in the Clancy list.

    You know which one no one ever talks about, but I think is quite good? The Cardinal of the Kremlin. SDI, Afghanistan, hardline Communist coups....very 80s.

  • BMFPitt||

    If you have millions of dollars and are about to go to the mattresses with a cartel, just take the money and walk.

    Offer to sell the superweed to them for a reasonable price and retire to the Caribbean.

  • R C Dean||

    No kidding.

    "You guys scare the shit out of me, so here's what I'm gonna do. You can have the whole operation, lock, stock, and barrel, for $X million bucks cash.

    "Or, I can dial up the detonators right now, and the whole thing burns to the ground. Either way, I'm out."

  • Killazontherun||

    Always look forward to a new Ollie, especially when it is not political (any bigger downer than Born On The Fourth?), and is focused on his take on violence. However, really looking for to the new Christopher McQuarrie who has an even more interesting take on the quantity stated above:

    http://www.wwtdd.com/2012/07/j.....a-trailer/

  • ThatSkepticGuy||

    "and is focused on his take on violence. "

    What "take" is that? Murder and torture are acceptable if they're being utilized by communists or revenge fantatsists?

  • Killazontherun||

    er, no. You are thinking in terms of idea and ideology and the limitations there in inherent. Purely the aesthetics of a rub out done well.

  • ||

    I don't get why reason has two movie reviewers.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Don't start going all "tyranny of choice" on us now.

  • NotSure||

    I think the problem is that they both review the same movies most of the time.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    It was sounding pretty good until the end. Oh, well. It'll be worth a rental, at least.

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