Sunday, July 15, 2012

"Savages" Review

Remember when Oliver Stone made moves like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Natural Born Killers? Man, those were the days.  While certainly a talented director, he's been woefully uneven and heavy-handed over the past decade.  There was the infamous blockbuster bomb Alexander, the groan-inducing diatribe on everything United 93 did better, World Trade Center, and the inoffensive as much as unnecessary Shia Leboeuf infused sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.  Besides Any Given Sunday, the polarizing biopic, W., is really the only film he's done in the past 15 years that worked at the end of the day.  Savages, based on the novel by Don Winslow, is supposed to be his triumphant return to form.  Does it work?  Does he reclaim his past accolade as controversial visionary?   Well...not quite, but he made a pretty damn good movie :) .

Ophelia (Blake Lively) is apart of a polygamous relationship with two marijuana dealers, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylror Kitsch).  One a scarred, detached war veteran, the other a shaggy-haired, quixotic philanthropist, Ophelia makes no qualms about loving both of them, going so far as to say that together they make a whole man.  The three live a very cushy(no pun intended) lifestyle off the coast of Laguna Beach, California, as a result of their successful business ventures, itself a result of smuggling the finest pot seeds from Afghanistan and learning how to create an unmatched product in terms of THC quality.  O touts about how clean and non-violent their operation has been, though they still need a money launderer (Emile Hirsch) and a bent DEA agent (John Travolta) running interference for them.  This alerts them to the financially agitated leader of the Baha Cartel, Elena (Salma Hayek), who muscles in on their territory in hopes of making a peaceful deal where everyone profits and no one gets hurt.  When the guys' hubris gets the best of them and they deliver the plot-obliged "go fuck yourself", she kidnaps O, and we're off to the races.

The acting is fine across the board.  I've never been a huge fan of Lively.  Every time I see her, particularly in something like this or in 2010's "The Town", I can't help but feel she is criminally miscast.  Though she never delivers a bad performance, I always feel like someone else in her shoes could've delivered it better.  Not surprisingly, her character is the hardest to care about, though in her defense, it's mostly due to the character's lack of overt charm and sympathetic qualities than it is Lively's performance, and she does everything she can with what she's given.

Nothing about the film is particularly subtle, and it makes no apologies for it.  Even symbolic moments of characterization stick out like a sore thumb, (i.e. Salma Hayek ripping off her wig after a loved one is kidnapped in order to humanize the central villain) but it all works because, well, that's how it's supposed to be done.  Savages is the kind of film that makes a great argument for the Keep It Simple Stupid approach to writing.  A movie does not need to be surprising or subvert genre or narrative in order to make you care about it.

Where it is surprising is in its violence, which is a-plenty.  Gloriously pulp in its delivery, when this movie kills someone, it doesn't fuck around.  Benicio Del Toro's Lado is dealing about 90% of it, so that should give you a strong inclination of what Savages has to offer in that department.

It's by no means a perfect movie.  The writing, particularly Blake Lively's voiceover, though not too prevalent as to hinder the story, can be a bit trite and overdone at times.  Stone also seems to be way too in love with his own characters (a common symptom of "adapted-from-critically-accaimed-novel-syndrome", or AFCANS), so the film is a little too exposition heavy in its first half, and could've probably cut some slower scenes for pacing's sake.  I remember thinking at a couple of points, "Yeah, I get it.  I like these guys.  Please start the plot now."  and though they are basically as archetypal as you can get in this sort of thing, they all serve their purpose, and are interesting characters that I did give a shit about.

The third act is kind of an eye-rollingly ham fisted attempt at a happy ending that didn't need to be there, but the character work is so good up to that point that I found myself really yearning for one (something I very rarely do, I'm a Whedon guy, I love shit endings) and embracing it when it happened, though I do wish he used this opportunity to provide some signature moral ambiguity to the situation, which is sadly lacking.

It's a very by-the-book crime thriller, but that is not exactly a point against it, as it rarely misses a beat.  It could've gotten away with an extra 15 minutes of cuts and we would've been looking at a much sleeker picture, but it's certainly not a deal breaker.

The setting, lushly lurid cinematography, well-realized characters, and gratuitous violence not often seen these days all make it worth it's own weight.

Overall, there are much worse ways of spending your time at the movies, and if you're looking for a break from the bland, tepid, comic book sequel factory that is summer blockbuster season, (except The Avengers, have you really not seen that yet?) but retain some throwaway fun, you won't do much better than Savages.

65% = ***/ **** = "Good"

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