Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Film Review: Savages

Last night, I made personal history and attended the theatre for a second time in just two days. In all my life as a film-fan, I never had the reason or the chance to see two movies two nights in a row. This is probably because there is rarely more than one film that I'm interested in out at any given time. However, taking a look at the list of films coming out over the next few months, it seems like I'll be at the theatres a lot in the latter half of 2012. Oliver Stone's Savages, adapted from Don Winslow's novel, is the film that got me out to the theatres last night. Anytime I see a trailer for a slick and flashy crime thriller, I'm interested. So I, along with my action movie buddy Guy Dudeman, went to check out the film, which wasn't perfect, but definitely enjoyable.

I have only seen a handful of Oliver Stone's films, such as Natural Born Killers and The Doors, and while he isn't one of my favourite directors, I've always appreciated his style and knack for portraying drama and graphic violence in a cool way (though he can be a bit too politically motivated for my tastes). Prior to this, I had never seen a Taylor Kitsch film, and had only seen Blake Lively in The Town and Aaron Johnson in Kick-Ass. So although I knew the basic plot of the film, I wasn't familiar enough with the work of the director and main cast to know exactly what I was getting into. I was very skeptical about Salma Hayek's ability to portray a threatening villain, and I honestly thought that John Travolta had retired, so was surprised to see him pop up in the commercials for the movie. I'm always excited to see Benicio del Toro act and he more than delivered as a hilariously disgusting villain in Savages.

Here's the basic plotline of the film: Ben, a gentle and idealistic botany expert, and Chon, an Afghanistan and Iraq war vet turned cold and calculated enforcer, are best friends who have a very popular and comfortable pot growing ring. They share a girl named O, who is the narrator of the film. The trio love eachother intensely and share everything (yeah, everything). When Ben and Chon reject the offer of a Mexcian drug cartel, they kidnap O in a drastic attempt to change the duo's minds. Rather than give in, Chon uses his violent skills and Ben uses his talent for negotiation to attack the cartel and save their girl. Pretty typical storyline for a crime thriller, but the cinematography and some outstanding performances help the lackluster plot-line stand out more than it would in the hands of a less talented director and cast.

The style and tone of the film is apparent from the moment it begins. This isn't a straight-forward shoot-em-up style revenge flick, Stone and company obviously tried to elevate the material with the use of black and white, voice-over, beautiful scenery, and lots of characterization to kick off the film. That being said, Blake Lively's narration throughout the film was quite contrived and corny, and I honestly could have done without it. While Oliver Stone has established himself among the old-time directors, Savages is an blatant attempt to stay relevant, to appeal to younger generations, to show us that he's still cool. With flashy editing techniques, a satisfying amount of sex and violence, and a hot, young trio leading the cast, Stone accomplishes the goal of proving that he's still hip, though the delivery does seem a bit forced.

Here's a thought or two about the main performances: Taylor Kitsch has already proven that he can be an action hero (though John Carter and Battleship were apparently quite terrible), so the role of Chon seems like a breeze for him. He is quite a bad-ass in this movie, but I feel like he's over-shadowed by Aaron Johnson's Ben, whose character allows for him to show off more range in his acting chops. Johnson is one of the highlights of the film, playing the part of a laid-back hippie who is forced into violence really well. Regarding Blake Lively, I just don't see it. Maybe it's her voice, or how she carried herself as O, or her overall acting ability, she just seemed out of place in this film and I didn't buy her at all. Seems to me she'd be better suited to be a model. I never (ever) thought I'd say this, but Salma Hayek had one of the strongest performances out of the main cast. She didn't play her role as cartel leader Elaina as a straight evil villain, she brought a lot of depth and emotion to her character, which provided a great foil to her enforcer Laddo, played by Benicio del Toro. Benicio is always impressive, dynamic, and unique, and he didn't disappoint here, playing the truly evil Laddo in a way that makes you cringe with hate, but also look forward to whenever he pops up on screen. Finally, there's John Travolta. Who knew he still had it in him. He was believeable as Dennis the dirty DEA agent and while he didn't get a lot of screen time, he proved that he still has the ability to play it cool, freak out like a maniac, and be a bit of a bad-ass. Shout-out to Emile Hirsch as Ben and Chon's money launderer. I've been a fan of Hirsch for a long time now, he's one of the best young actors we have going right now and I felt that he even could have played the role of Ben, rather than the bit part he was given.

When I believed that the movie was wrapping up, I was ready to write a positive review and fully recommend it to other fans of the crime thriller/revenge drama genres. After a showdown between Ben, Chon, and the cartel baddies, the movie seemed to be ending with the duo reuniting with O. Laddo got the brutal death that he deserved and Elaina also dies for her sins. Ben's clearly dying, and Chon badly injured, so he and O decide to opt out and decide to die beside their beloved Ben. We're treated to a beautifully heart-breaking pan out of the trio convulsing and suffering, yet dying happily ever after together. Then, Oliver Stone, along with screenwriters Shane Salemo and Don Winslow, commits one of the worst offenses a film-maker can ever make: he takes it all back.

You see, the ending that we just witnessed was a cheap trick, just a fantasy in O's head. We rewind back to the beginning of the showdown, which actually ends with Dennis busting Elaina, Laddo escaping, and Ben and Chon getting out clean, with Dennis's help. The movie ends with Ben, Chon, and O far far away, reunited and safe, living the life they always wanted. What a rip off. If they had skipped the 1st ending and went straight to the happy ending, I wouldn't have minded. But to tease the audience with this tragic, memorable, satisfying ending, then not have the balls to follow through, that's unforgivable. Much like my reaction to the ambiguous Dark Knight Rises ending, I prefer to believe that the 2nd ending of Savages was the fantasy, and that the main trio really did die together on the desert ground, with all the bad guys dead too. The Oliver Stone quote that I'll post with this review helps to explain his choice to offer us a fake ending and a real one, but it in no way excuses it. So rather than come out of the theatre impressed by the style and substance of this crime thriller, I have a sickly sweet taste in my mouth from that Hollywood ending. Not cool.

Overall, Savages is a fun watch for any fan of stylish action films. The plot isn't very original and the delivery was corny at times, but strong and dynamic performances and gritty violence saved the day. And the violence isn't reduced to fist fights and shoot-outs, I seriously saw things in this movie that I haven't seen before and won't soon forget (for example, Laddo torturing Alex the lawyer with a whip, disgusting). Although Hayek, Travolta, and del Toro have nothing to prove, they did their best in the roles they were given. I'd rather not see Lively again, Kitsch will have a bright future as an action star, and I'll definitely be keeping an eye on Aaron Johnson, that dude has talent.

As for Oliver Stone, he shows that he still has some life left in his career and can hang with the younger generation of action/thriller film-makers, though he does come off a bit as the old guy trying to look cool for his kid's friends. Hopefully he leaves the political stuff alone from now on (unlikely) and sticks to fun movies like Savages from here on out. Though I'll never forgive him for that bait-and-switch ending. My recommendation: When you see the camera panning away from O, Ben, and Chon, just leave the theatre and consider the movie over. Hollywood endings are never satisfying for us Thinkers, I wish the big production companies would think of us once in a while.

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