When one of your favorite directors lets you down, it’s especially disappointing when you can’t defend them and don’t even want to. I was already skunked this summer with Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows but now Oliver Stone, a filmmaker whose work I’m normally quite excited about, has let me and himself down with his new movie, Savages.
It stars Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch as millionaire pot dealers who share the love of the same woman, a bubble-headed beach babe named O, played by Blake Lively. When our stoner-preneurs reject an offer from a ruthless drug czar (played by Salma Hayek) to join her group, they make a run for it, but not before O gets kidnapped and held for ransom.
A rarely noted fact about Stone is that, in addition to directing films ranging from Platoon, JFK, Any Given Sunday and The Doors, he also wrote the screenplay to the Al Pacino version of Scarface. He admitted to writing that film while heavily under the influence and many moments and images from Scarface, such as chainsaw murders, characters snorting cocaine, gleeful debauchery, power mad drug lords, resurface here.
Stone also directed the enjoyable U-Turn, a small scale thriller with a real nasty streak. In trying to fuse what worked in Scarface and U-Turn, Stone crafts an excessive exploitation thriller that adds up to the cinematic equivalent of used bong water.
What’s especially odd is that the film has nothing to say, as Stone’s political commentary is nowhere in sight. Is he saying that the drug war is corrupt on all sides? We knew that going in. The film makes its point 10 minutes in, that we’re all savages, and proceeds in directions we’ve seen before.
Kitsch, the star of John Carter and Battleship, displays considerable intensity but he’s zero for three in picking a good script, and Johnson barely registers, beyond being the nice pot dealer with the long hair. Someone refers to our dynamic duo as Cheech and Chong, a fitting comparison, since, if you take away their youthful good looks and itchy trigger fingers, they’re kind of dumb and dopey.
Benicio Del Toro registers strongly as a vile character but he’s too good and advanced in his career to be playing henchman and Lively was far better at this sort of role in The Town. Hayek’s against-type casting is matched by her great performance but the screenplay can’t decide whether she’s supposed to be sympathetic or an all-out monster. John Travolta is exceptional playing a vulnerable, twitchy fed but the movie doesn’t utilize him enough.
Stone’s stylish touches help as much as the colorful cinematography but he gives us no one to care about. You’d never expect Stone to be subtle but it’s unusual and disappointing to see him direct a film that is merely watchable instead of engaging.
Three things kill the film entirely: Lively’s awful narration, the rotten dialogue (hands down the worst line in the film: “he gave me orgasms, I gave him war-gasms”) and the double-twist ending, in which we have to endure two badly written standoffs, back-to-back, then endure another 10 minutes before the film finally ends.
Stone’s films can be provocative social commentaries, illuminating reminders of our past or, at the very least, an exhilarating ride. With Savages, he’s made a such a slick, gruesome and sexually charged ransom drama with such empty, unappealing characters, it plays like a bad Tony Scott film. I don’t know if Stone was inebriated when he co-wrote and directed this. I can only vouch that it leaves you with a bad buzz when it’s over. Bummer, man.
Rated R / 127 Min.