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By Rick Kisonak | July 10, 2012

Oliver Stone has given us an unforgettable fable of friendship, betrayal, greed and doomed love set against the backdrop of the drug trade. The problem is he gave it to us almost thirty years ago. It’s called Scarface. He wrote the screenplay.

A lot has happened since 1983. Stone built a reputation as one of the most intellectually provocative and stylistically fearless filmmakers of our time. And then he flamed out in spectacular fashion. It’s a long way down from JFK to Alexander.

With his latest, the Oscar-winning director tries desperately to convince viewers that he’s got his mojo back. One can see why he was attracted to the idea of adapting Don Winslow’s 2010 novel about two Southern California pot dealers who go to war with a Mexican cartel. There are comparisons to be made between their story and Tony Montana’s. Unfortunately, Savages suffers from every one of them.

Aaron Johnson is Ben, a talented botanist. Taylor Kitsch is Chon, a veteran of two tours in the Middle East who had the foresight to bring a stash of killer seeds home with him from Afghanistan. Together they’ve built an empire, amassed a fortune and enjoyed the uh, company of a California girl named O who’s played by Blake Lively.

It’s sort of nice to see things going well for Kitsch in the early scenes. He lives in an oceanfront mansion with his two roomies and the demands of life as a hippy druglord don’t seem to extend far beyond keeping the community bong fired up. After John Carter and Battleship, the guy deserves some happy time.

His buzz is harshed in a big way though when Chon shows him a video he just received on his laptop. It’s an invitation from a powerful cartel. Footage of several people being decapitated by chainsaw is followed by the time and place where the Mexicans want to meet and the suggestion that Ben and Chon play ball if they don’t want to be the newest members of the Black & Decker club.

I found it almost impossible to take anything that happened from this point seriously. It turns out the operation is run by the least convincing drug lord in movie history-a diminutive diva in a Cleopatra wig played by Salma Hayek. She spends her days getting foot massages from servants and whining that her daughter should visit more often. No explanation’s ever offered as to how she keeps the vicious psychopaths who work for her in line.

These include Demian Bichir as a midlevel manager and Benicio Del Toro as a bad lieutenant. We know he’s bad because he raises his eyebrow and twirls his mustache a lot. They kidnap O to ensure the boys will go along with the merger they want but Hayek’s power play backfires and they go Rambo on her instead. Until I saw Savages, I didn’t realize that a pair of Laguna Beach stoners could pose a serious threat to a ruthless Tijuana cartel. Watching Stone’s latest certainly was educational.

It also offered lessons in how not to cast a film. Its attractive young stars have the combined screen presence of dryer lint while seasoned vets like John Travolta are squandered as hyperactive afterthoughts. There’s much to be learned here for aspiring screenwriters too. For example, don’t write dialogue like this gem uttered by O in reference to Chon: “I have orgasms, he has wargasms.” And don’t indulge in gimmicks like multiple endings-especially when neither of them is satisfying. Oh, and remember not to be boring.

Finally, what Savages taught me is that it may just be time to stop hoping for Stone’s big comeback. The guy’s 65. He’s made an admirable contribution to the art form but he hasn’t directed a significant film in nearly two decades. By continuing to crank out clunkers like this, the filmmaker isn’t doing his reputation or his audience any favors.

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  1. Don R. Lewis says:

    I understand your issues with the film, Rick…but I found it to be pretty fun. I agree it’s not a return to form for Stone but I also think Travolta, del Toro and Hayek are having alot of fun being bad and chewing scenery like there’s no tomorrow. I loved it and thought there were alot of subtle touches that were hysterical.

    I also don’t see the comparisons between this and SCARFACE other than that they’re both about the drug trade. It’s a totally different film. My issue is that it’s too long and starts off as a cool riff on money being the root of all evil then falls apart (like most Stone films of late) and into a rambling kinda mess. I also didn’t like the ending.

  2. Kyle says:

    Hey, totally agree with most of your review. The trailer made it look like it was going to be a hardcore(unrealistic film where pretty white, spoiled kids take on the Mexican Cartel)with lots of action, violence, and not take itself so seriously. Only Travolta and Del Toro seem to realize how retarded the film is if the brain dead boring 25 year old drug dealers aren’t also winking occasionally… they could have avoided the conflict and made more. Hayek also had a few good lines, and Del Toro was always going to betray her knowing she wasn’t hardcore enough to BE that person. He was though… so in a way that’s the one realistic aspect of the film… her husband dies, she’s left it knowing she has to pull a Hillary Clinton. All while she loves her daughter and is actually lonely and will never be part of the boy’s club.

    Oliver Stone should have given Del Toro and Travolta much more screen time(especially in the same scenes.) The film had brief moments of cool stuff… but was totally boring and the so-called good guys should have died. I was rooting for Del Toro and Travolta when Travolta is abruptly met by Del Toro at his front door saying he’s a gardener. That scene was 2 hours into the film(so… way to waste actually talented actors.) The ex military guy was the only younger actor who showed any promise since he was shell shocked and almost a sociopath due to his time spent killing and seeing all the sites in the middle east courtesy of America.

    The main girl was a vacuous, slu*cough*t who seriously deserved to die. The fake peace first guy was worse than a guy like Gordon Gecko or Tony Montana(but so entitled and clueless that he could fool himself into thinking he was a good guy.) So yeah, the one ex military guy’s past and character wasn’t as boring but the movie didn’t really hit upon that. Oh well. The masks were cool but it was laughable that Del Toro didn’t laugh at them nonstop. Oliver Stone’s one true classic is Wall Street. Platoon is the cartoon version of Full Metal Jacket. Scarface is awesome because it’s almost as campy, silly, and has a guy in black face and a hilariously funny bad accent while shooting people and doing so much cocaine that it’d be silly if it hadn’t been the 80’s. He started out writing a few classics and a few fun, but bad films like the Hand(still more inspired than anything he’s made since Nixon.) So yeah… old school Oliver Stone ain’t coming back, and the last time he went old school was probably U-Turn(actually one of his top 3 films.)

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