You really want to believe in Savages, Oliver Stone’s resurrection as a disreputable pulp director. With its drained-out greasy colour scheme, and arsenal of visual tricks, sexual kink and Itchy and Scratchy cartoon violence, his new film is intended to signal the 65-year-old director’s return to the amoral trippy filmmaking of Natural Born Killers and U Turn, rather than the journeyman professional who gave us World Trade Center and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
So why does Savages feel so calculated, cutesy, free of suspense and trashy only in the uninteresting sense? No doubt, Stone is trying. Savages is diligently whipped together from Don Winslow’s bestseller, with juddering hand-held shots, and spasms of black-and-white and computer imagery, but it all feels more like flexing atrophied muscles rather than creating a believable experience.
The first misstep is the casting. There’s Blake Lively as Ophelia Sage, a.k.a. “O” (can Oprah sue for copyright infringement?), with her tangled tresses, slack smile and Lauren Bacall hooded eyes. Her opening voice-over, with its strained post-Buffy jokes (a beheading is someone “going Henry VIII”), is Gossip Girl after graduation.
Then there’s Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson as her superbuff Abercombie & Fitch duo of lovers with whom she shares a Laguna Beach home. Chon (Kitsch) is a former Navy SEAL who brought some magic marijuana seeds back with him from Afghanistan. Ben (Johnson) is a sensitive genius botanist who has developed the weed strain into some killer THC content. We know this because O tells us so, but the characters remain one-dimensional. We see a lot of them hanging around their lavish beachfront house, in the tub or the pool, taking turns with O (always partly dressed) while sampling their herb.
Then, whoa!, some heavy Mexican buzz-harshing cartel dudes contact them by Skype to show them some hideous al-Qaeda style videos of their enemies being decapitated and hung up on hooks to send them a message (complete with a sad-face emoticon). The Mexicans work for Elena (Salma Hayek), a pint-sized diva in plunging necklines and a Cleopatra wig, who wants a piece of Ben and Chon’s business. When they show up for a meeting, the Mexicans clean up good, wearing suits and acting more like mall developers than gangsters: It seems they want to buy into the boys’ high-grade pot action. As jumpy crooked drug-enforcement agent Dennis (John Travolta) explains, the cartel is Wal-Mart, and it’s out to absorb their boutique operation.
The villainous Elena arranges for her right-hand psycho, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), to kidnap O to make sure the boys capitulate. And naturally, the crafty Ben and ruthless Chon pretend to go along with the demands while launching their own insurrectionist war against the cartel’s incursion.
Stone, typically, isn’t remotely subtle about his political points, swipes at capitalism and references to the war on terrorism. Once Chon and Ben decide to cross the moral line, they’re pecs deep into kidnapping, torture, improvised explosive devices – the whole desert war package, all in sunny Southern California.
Meanwhile, poor O is kept in a cell, where she is forced to eat pizza and watch episodes of The Bachelorette while Del Toro, as her psychopathic guard under a pompadour as big as an armadillo, keeps wiggling his eyebrows ominously. In her Tijuana palace, Elena gets foot rubs from her maid, talks in a Darth Vader-disguised voice to the gringo boys via Skype, and threatens her underlings with extermination.
As with most comic-book movies, the apparently insurmountable problems are easily solved by superhero abilities. Chon and the squad of expert killers he has on speed dial can rip off the cartel hoods with ease. Ben’s computer genius buddy (Emile Hirsch in a small role) can falsify records and move money around the world with a click of a computer mouse. Although we’re supposed to feel the burden of Ben’s transformation from peaceful do-gooder to blood-soaked killer, it feels as weighty as a puff of smoke.
There is an intriguing war going on here, but it’s conducted between two generations of actors. Those shameless middle-aged hams – Travolta, who wheedles and sparks like Peter Lorre on meth, Del Toro as an oozing sore of a reprobate and Hayek as a telenovela Lady Macbeth – cruelly blow the pretty trio of young stars off the screen. There are no good guys in Savages, but only the really bad guys hold an iota of interest.