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 30 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 hippie drug lord 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 Mexican cartel. Footage of several people being decapitated by chain saw is followed by rendezvous information 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 seriously anything that happened from this point on. 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. We never learn how she keeps the vicious psychopaths who work for her in line.
These include Demián 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 desired merger, but Hayek’s power play backfires, and the Californians 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 such as 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 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.