By Carl Kozlowski
Have you ever gone to a movie and felt like you needed a shower afterwards? I’m not talking about sitting in run-down, flea-bitten theater where 25-year-old movies are shown. I’m talking about a film like Oliver Stone’s Savages, the kind of movie that forgets some of the most basic elements a film needs to be entertaining — like heroes worth rooting for, villains who are more evil than the people you’re cheering for and a plot that makes sense even amid a zillion twists.
Savages is an attempt by Stone to be cutting-edge again, after falling from being a controversial, fire-breathing showman capable of making award-winning films like Platoon, Wall Street and Natural Born Killers in the 1980s and ’90s to spewing out oddly muted PG-13 fare like World Trade Center, W. and Wall Street 2 in the last few years.
This time, Stone takes on the drug war, particularly as it revolves around Mexican marijuana, and uses narration by a spacey yet beautiful woman named O (Blake Lively), who lives in a spectacular oceanfront mansion paid for in cash by two pot kingpins, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), with whom she lives.
From the get-go, the audience is unable to tell whether to take O’s narration seriously. A preview audience recently burst into guffaws in the opening minutes when she said things like, “They say drugs are bad. But in a bad, bad world, they’re good.” Oh, and she’s sleeping with both her buddies, explaining that Chon is the haunted, macho, war-vet badass who likes to pound away in the sack, while she gets her actual lovin‘ from Ben, a self-styled Buddhist who runs Third World children’s charities when he’s not getting high and supervising his empire.
Not only does O get tossed between the two dudes like a football, but Stone also shows the three of them starting to get busy together like they’re in a late-’80s Cinemax skin flick rather than a major studio summertime release.
So, you may ask, if we have three hot-looking people getting high, what more do we need? Well, it turns out the dudes get approached by a Mexican drug cartel to become partners with them and teach them how to smuggle more drugs into the U.S. When Chon and Ben turn down the deal, the leader of the Mexicans (Salma Hayek, who deserves to be in way more movies) sets off a series of back-stabbings and recriminations, particularly by having her goons (led by a really sweaty Benicio del Toro) track and kidnap O in an attempt to force Chon and Ben to enter the drug-empire partnership.
The rest is convoluted beyond belief, with John Travolta as the most recognizable star. Even so, his two-timing FBI agent character garners relatively little screen time. As people threaten torture, commit torture, imply rape, toke up constantly and ultimately blow up a bunch of crap, you might think he would be a reliable port in the storm. But his character just runs back and forth between the two sides, working each of their angles for money when he’s not solemnly thinking about his unseen wife dying from cancer.
That leaves the three young leads to carry the film, and neither of the guys has enough charisma to pull it off. Kitsch is OK here, which is much more than I can say for his involvement in John Carter and Battleship earlier this year. Johnson just looks spacey. And for her part, Lively is either spouting embarrassing platitudes or locked up and passed out for days at a time.
Despite the movie flying by at a zippy pace and a few thrills here and there, Savages has the same dispirited feeling with which everyone in the storyline seemingly regards humanity: pretty to look at, ugly to know. Lather up.