Whatever you may think of Oliver Stone’s work, it’s fair to say that his films usually arrive with a certain level of interest. From his early Vietnam trilogy to political thrillers and the controversy-courting Natural Born Killers, people are usually talking about his films. Which is why it’s disappointing to be presented with something like Savages, which feels – to use a word not often associated with the director – incidental.
That’s not to say that Savages – which tells the story of two drug-dealing entrepreneur buddies – is a bad film, because it isn’t, but it does feel like a stepping-stone to a more interesting project.
We begin in Laguna Beach, and a voiceover from O (Blake Lively) which introduces us to Chon and Ben (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively), who run a high earning cannabis dealing business. Chon, an ex-Marine, is the muscle, and good-hearted Ben is the brains behind the operation. That summary sells their characters a little short, but it’s the basic setup of the film. O – short for Ophelia – is girlfriend to both of them, and it’s an arrangement they all get along with. No jealously, no fights; just friendship and trust. This setup feels a little tacked on at first, but actually the three of them have convincing chemistry, and make it work.
The friends’ successful operation is threatened when a larger Mexican cartel – presided over by the glamorous but deadly Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek) – decides it wants a cut of the action. Ben is in favour of getting out of the game, while Chon doesn’t like anyone telling him what to do. It quickly becomes clear than there won’t be an easy way out, and when O is kidnapped, they are forced to play ball with their new employers, at least until they can figure out an escape route.
The film keeps a fair amount of plates spinning for a decent percentage of its runtime but, by the end, the sound of smashing crockery, while not deafening, is difficult to ignore. O initially seems to be under a great deal of threat when she is kidnapped, but a subplot involving Elena’s daughter contrives to suggest a paternal bond between captive and capturer, which is an interesting idea but doesn’t really come off. Similarly, Elena’s chief brute Miguel – played with effective force by Benicio del Toro, even if we’ve seen similar performances from him before – represents both the film’s primary manifestation of threat and violence, but also gets the most comic beats, a juxtaposition which dampens his effectiveness slightly. There’s also a scene with him near the end – involving a mobile phone – which feels unnecessarily exploitative.
And then there’s the ending. It’s difficult to imagine what the thinking was behind the film’s final act, but it’s badly misjudged, and leaves a sour taste in the mouth that the film doesn’t deserve. It’s an ending which lacks the conviction of some of the earlier, much stronger, scenes, and it does a disservice to decently established characters.
Speaking of which, the cast all perform well. Taylor Kitsch, who has managed to helm two box office flops in one year – John Carter and Battleship – redeems himself a bit here, and is perfectly good as Chon, giving him a nuance which he needs, Aaron Taylor-Johnson gives believability and charm to his slightly rote ‘criminal with a heart’ role, and Blake Lively does well as the protagonists’ joint lover. Meanwhile, John Travolta enjoys himself as a police snitch, and Salma Hayek is lots of fun as the bitchy drug baron, conveying the kind of commanding female presence that was buried beneath all Charlize Theron’s enjoyable but silly shouting in Snow White and the Huntsman earlier this year.
Stone has put together a technically sound and sporadically thrilling thriller, but it drops the ball at the end, and tries to squeeze a bit too much into its runtime. It also doesn’t have the level of commentary or depth we might expect from Stone, which isn’t necessarily a criticism, of course, but this doesn’t have quite enough about it to stop it from feeling, well, incidental.