Skewed & Reviewed Southwest weighs in on Oliver Stone’s latest movie with a review from newest contributor, Ryan Guerra.

Over the past 15 years, Oliver Stone’s films have been kind of hit or miss to me. It’s as if Stone is still trying to make the same controversial films he became popular for in the 80’s and early 90’s. Only, as an audience, we have become keen to his filmmaking style and therefore his more recent work suffers from the apathy of a “show me something new” culture. Still, despite his failures, Stone does not makes apologies for his work while he continues in his quest to make films about controversial subjects. This time around Stone strives to take us into the violent world of the Mexican drug cartels though a film adaptation of the novel Savages by Don Winslow.

As the film opens we are introduced to “O” (Blake Lively) who, as our narrator, acquaints us with the open yet loving relationship she shares with our two protagonists, Chon and Ben. Chon (Taylor Kitsch), an ex-Navy SEAL, is unquestionably the muscle of the trio’s operation. Chon was the original financier for his high school friend Ben, (Aaron Johnson) the peaceful, charitable, botany genius who has created the most potent marijuana in the world. Together these two embody the perfect man for O, while the three of them enjoy the spoils of the small marijuana empire they created in southern California.

That is until they gain the attention from a Mexican cartel intent on creating a stronger foothold in the southern California area. The cartel offers them a partnership and explains that by teaming up their business will triple in three years. But when the trio refuse the offer, the ruthless head of the cartel, Elena (Selma Hayek), instructs her enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), to kidnap O and hold her hostage so the boys will cooperate. Soon our heroes use their network of connections, like crooked DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) and financial broker Spin (Emile Hirsch), to battle the cartel in a series of savage maneuvers to get back their one “shared” love.

Stone has been known to inspire his actors to give Oscar worthy performances. Sadly, you will not find any such performances here. That is not to say that the acting was terrible. It just seemed that the characters themselves are uninspired which is a shame because I would have liked to have seen some growth in this young cast, especially from Taylor Kitsch.

I feel that many critics will be hard on Taylor Kitsch because of his previous epic fails of 2012 (John Carter and Battleship) however I am surprised to admit that, for this movie at least, he gets a pass in my book. Not because he delivers a fantastic performance that makes me believe he’s truly an up and coming talent, but rather because he is convincing in his portrayal of Chon. When O describes our protagonists as each being one half of the perfect man, she refers to Chon as “Hard Steel,” which is exactly what Kitsch plays him as, a one-dimensional, emotionally devoid character with no growth or any real redeeming qualities other than the ability to go to war. Regardless of whether or not Kitsch has any additional acting range not showcased in this film, I cannot penalize him for his performance in this movie. He fit the part that he was cast in fine.

Blake Lively (Gossip Girl, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) plays O, short for Ophelia. And yes she channels the mad, love-struck, melancholic character from Hamlet after whom she is named. And while it is easy to make those comparisons to the character of this film, they only appear to be on the surface, if anything. And herein lies the problem. Regardless of how you feel about her open relationship with Ben and Chon, the more I learned about her, the less I cared. Like Kitsch’s character, O is boring and one dimensional. She is the product of being a pretty little rich girl whose mother is off somewhere with husband number twelve. She has been getting stoned every day since she was young and the only place she finds herself loved is in with the company of Chon and Ben. Tragic, I know. While watching the film I honestly thought to myself, if I was Ben or Chon, I would say, “Fuck it. Cut her loose and let’s go to Asia.” She has no redeeming qualities other than being good looking and a good lay. So why would they go through so much trouble for her? The trio’s relationship is weakly tied together by her telling us through narration but never really materializes on screen. At times you get some of a feeling that Ben actually loves her but that love is never really reciprocated from O. It is safe to say that that I did not derive any loving connection from Lively’s performance, though her deliver as a narrator was tolerable.

Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass) is the one redeeming performance from this young cast. In contrast to Chon, O describes Ben as “Soft Wood” which makes him the better half. Ben is the one character who actually goes through some kind of character arc and growth. Using the wood analogy, we watch him bend from the peaceful Buddhist businessman to the man who will sacrifice everything, to get back this woman he loves. Nowhere is this better embodied than when Ben is faced with the tough choice of sticking to his peaceful beliefs or incinerating a man in cold blood during one of their moves against the cartel. I found myself actually curious about what Ben would do next. Unlike Chon and O, Ben has some depth and struggles with his personal beliefs, his love for O and what needs to be done. Needless to say, Johnson delivers a believable performance that actually helps move along the action and was the only protagonist that kept me interested in their battle.

In addition to Johnson, the film is littered with several strong supporting cast members who all deliver solid performances. Selma Hayek is strong as Elena, the leader of the cartel that challenges Ben and Chon. She is a ruthless and shrewd businesswoman and yet has a better “sense of morality” as she explains during her interactions with O and her own daughter. Her enforcer Lado is played by Benicio Del Toro who, with the help of an uncomfortable rapist mustache, comes off as an extremely menacing character. Del Toro solidifies himself on screen by being down right creepy and yet intelligent in his own savage way. During every moment of screen time you expect him to kill someone just because it is good for business.

A needed bit of change of pace is provided by an unexpected performance by Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) as Ben and Chon’s witty financial broker, Spin. As well as by John Travolta who plays Dennis, the dirty DEA agent who’s in Ben and Chon’s pocket. In fact, even though Travolta’s screen time is maybe a total of 12 minutes, his performance steals the show with his sole bit of comic relief, for lack of a better explanation. Perhaps the strongest acted moment of this film is during a standoff scene between Del Toro and Travolta that in many ways makes me want to know more about those characters. And what that movie would be about.

In typical Stone fashion the movie is shot in a variety of film angles and stylistic devices used to foreshadow and at times create a foreboding presence. Visually the movie provides a strong and believable feeling for the world these characters live in and the way that they operate their business. In addition, narration is used at points to move along the action and provide the audience with insight that otherwise would not have been possible on performances alone. I personally have no problem with narration as long as it is set up from the beginning and used to advance the story, which it is. However in the final act, the movie introduces a film device from left field that completely kills the already weak pacing of the movie. I cannot get into it without giving away the story, but I can see how this device could completely ruin the movie for those patrons who are already disinterested by the time the final act rolls around. Especially for those who do not find any connection to any of the characters. In which case, the pacing of this film will seem slow and drawn out.

I am torn about my review of this film. Savages is something that I wanted to like more than I did. Two of the three protagonists are one dimensional and if it was not for Johnson and the strong supporting cast I might have found the movie boring. It was also completely different from the expectations set by the commercials. Those looking for an action movie will feel misled and will more than likely be disappointed with the film. Not that there is not any action, only it comes between very long periods of dialogue and slow pacing. By the end of the movie, you are either invested in these characters or just waiting for the lights to come up in the theater. And in typical Oliver Stone fashion the movie tries to make us question our own perception of just what it means to be a savage.

3 out of 5 stars