Sunday, July 29, 2012


Foxes, Wolves And An Empire Of Blood

Salma Hayek as Elena and Blake Lively as Ophelia in Oliver Stone's crime drama "Savages". 
Universal Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Sunday, July 29, 2012

Feral, ferocious, hypnotic and seductive, Oliver Stone's "Savages" stands more as a cartoonish satire of the current state of America's drug "war" than a serious look at the devastation of the fight over drugs.  Drawn on a "Scarface" operatic yet micro scale playing field via drug-dealing, marijuana-using suppliers Chon (Taylor Kitsch, "John Carter", "Battleship") and Ben (Aaron Johnson, "Kick-Ass", "Nowhere Boy"), "Savages" is intense, brutal and bloody.  Chon (John) and Ben are best friends who share a blonde girlfriend named Ophelia, aka O (Blake Lively) in the sunny, warm climes of Laguna Beach, California.  "They must love each other more than they love you, otherwise how could they share you," ruthless Mexican drug lord Elena (Salma Hayek) tells O.

Narrated by O in the same way a female voice narrated parts of Mr. Stone's "Heaven And Earth" roughly 20 years ago, "Savages" combines the fierce opera of "Scarface" with the comic absurdity and violence of "Natural Born Killers".  Mr. Stone's new crime drama-romance opened this month and boasts strong performances from Ms. Hayek and especially Benicio Del Toro as Lado, Elena's rough-trade henchman who has self-interest at heart.  O, the biggest drug that the two male gringo "Laguna-ites" share, is kidnapped.  Chon and Ben, reluctant to share their lucrative drug enterprise with Elena and dapper lawyer Alex (Demián Bichir, "A Better Life"), outline a plan to get out of the deal with Elena and rescue O.

"Savages" is about a primal drive -- that of keeping family intact as well as the overall need to control, preserve and protect the precious things we have and aspire to hold on to as human beings.  Elena has been thrust into her nasty line of work by death itself, and doesn't want her daughter Magda (Sandra Echevarría) falling prey to the same.  O has never had a family but finds one with the two boyish father figures in her life.  "Savages" works best when Ms. Hayek and Ms. Lively are together, and the serenity of their scenes dovetails with the tempo of the spiritual-like, if occasionally off-putting and pretentious narration.  There's peace, emotion and understanding between these two ladies on divided sides of the drugs border.  Mr. Stone's otherwise engaging and absorbing film loses something when Mr. Kitsch, Mr. Johnson and Emile Hirsch (as a computer whiz and hacking genius) are onscreen. 

By contrast "Savages" flourishes when Mr. Del Toro, Ms. Hayek and Mr. Bichir are on screen.  They all look and feel much more comfortable with the material written by Mr. Stone, Shane Salerno and Don Winslow (based on Mr. Winslow's novel) than the American-born actors do.  I'm not sure if that's because the characters that the latter actors play all have higher stakes in the story or because the director orchestrates the film in such a way that their plights are more demanding (and they are.)  It may be a bit of both, or just that the aforementioned trio of Puerto Rican and Mexican-born actors are just flat-out better at their daytime jobs (and they are.)

Meanwhile Dennis (John Travolta), a federal drug enforcement agent and key point man for Chon and Ben, also has a fractured family: a daughter and cancer-stricken wife on her last legs.  He and others on this wacky stage are driven by impulse and expediency, having to act out and play the role of someone other than their true selves to get what they want.  It's a game no one wins -- they just endure or repeat it.  Throughout "Savages" there's constant masking and unmasking, as well as self-delusion and deception amongst and within all the players, and the way Mr. Stone canvasses and represents this (via lush and sometimes lurid cinematography by Daniel Mindel) is beautiful, smart and thorough. 

Each of the key characters are foxes or wolves.  Their animal drives kick in, either out of desperation or out of an urgent need to whet their appetites.  Whether it's sex -- which the director gets out of the way early on -- or through violence, or eating, there's an aggression and obsession in these acts that is overtly animalistic.  Watch for a scene where Lado carves up steak on a plate and feeds pieces of it to O.  The suspense of their interaction is powerful. 

Unlike Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic", which also starred Mr. Del Toro, "Savages" spends a fair bit of time in Mexico and has a few intentionally sarcastic and cynical thoughts about Native Americans.  Behind these thoughts for me lay the greed, hunger and opportunistic taking by force and savage violence of America itself by Europeans, and I couldn't help but think that Chon and Ben were somehow in their own very small way -- even unbeknownst to them -- reenacting this savagery in a reverse sense on a minor scale by rescuing O, the symbolic and celebrated pedestal object of the new America (a metaphoric Lady Liberty), albeit in the film the lady in question is blonde-haired with eyes wide open (although like Lady Liberty herself, O is blindfolded at one point.)

In "Savages", which could be a look at the American Scheme not the American Dream, it's every one for his or herself.  "There are no teammates," as the artist Pink once sang.  Mr. Stone, a thought-provoking director who hits his stride with this clever, colorful and bloody paradise, never sells us short in that notion or any others with this appealing drama.

Also with: Antonio Jaramillo, Joaquín Cosio, Leonard Roberts, Amber Dixon Brenner, Joel David Moore, Mia Maestro, Sean Stone, Tara Stone.

"Savages" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout.  In English and occasional Spanish with English language subtitles.  The film's running time is two hours and eleven minutes. 

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