The Cuddly Cartel Caper
What the hell happened to Oliver Stone? Set aside whatever feelings you have about his personal politics or the theories his films explore: the truth is, the man used to make daring, visually inventive, epic motion pictures. He turned his Viet Nam experience into the genre-redefining Platoon; in JFK, he cracked open conspiracies as explosively as "Lee Harvey Oswald's" bullets cracked open the late POTUS's skull; and he ushered in the dawn of hyperkinetic media with Natural Born Killers--a film that, like Idiocracy, looks more and more like a documentary with each passing year.
But his last great movie was nearly twenty years ago. The new century has not been kind to ol' Ollie. He took aim at a barrel full of fish during the second Bush administration, only to blew off his big toe. Next came the mixed-signals misfire Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps--which, at the height of the recession, gave America a "Banksters are People, too" message that no one needed or wanted.
Now we have Savages, a cartoon of a movie about the very real drug war ripping apart Mexico. Stone's first forray into the seduction and violence of the narcotics game, Scarface, became a classic in gangsta circles. Key images of Al Pacino's Tony Montana consuming a mountain of cocaine before cutting an army of hit men to ribbons with his "little friend" sell an ironic dream of wealth and invincibility; funny how few t-shirts feature Montana lying dead at the bottom of a fountain a few moments later. For all its gaudy, scene-chewing nuttiness, though, Stone's movie at least pretended to educate the audience about how drug operations work.
Savages, on the other hand, is a stupid, bloody fantasy made for and starring spoiled, impossible-to-root-for children. I realize that Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, and Aaron Johnson aren't actually kids, but their characters are so naive, developmentally arrested, and downright lucky that they're about as relatable to serious audiences as the characters in Gossip Girl (in which Lively also stars). Watching this movie, I couldn't believe Stone was behind such indulgent trash--until I remembered that this is July and not October: Savages isn't the director's typical Oscar-hunting think-piece; it's his first forray into brains-off popcorn territory.
The plot is simple: Ben (Johnson) and Chon (Kitsch) are a cannabis-growing mastermind and War-on-Terror veteran/badass, respectively. From a cozy Laguna Beach pad, they revolutionize America's pot industry through innovative harvesting methods and quiet, brutal enforcement of their own strict policies. Part of this coziness involves sharing the full figure and vacant head of Ophelia (Lively), a trust-fund kid who dropped out of community college in order to "drown in life".
A top Mexican cartel headed by the reluctant heiress Elena (Salma Hayek) wants to muscle in on the boys' operation, proposing a three-year contract at twenty percent. Neither Ben nor Chon want to go down that rabbit hole, but Elena's people make it clear that not negotiating is not an option. So they ask for twenty-four hours to think on it, and use that time to gather enough money to escape to Indonesia--where they'll ostensibly lay low for a year.
Savages runs off the rails pretty early on. Personally, I checked out during Lively's cloying, opening voice-over. But if you just care about the story and not the peripherals, I'd guess the boys' ill-conceived get-away is the point where your brain's "WTF" alarm will start ringing.
You see, Chon, being ex-military and insanely rich, has hired a contingent of old brothers in arms to serve as his operation's personal security detail. This means that every time he and Ben take a meeting with shady customers, snipers and explosives experts watch their every move. If two Cali stoners can figure this out, do they not think that an even wealthier army of Mexican drug dealers--brutal killers with a larger network, who've been in the game much longer than they have--wouldn't also have eyes on the ground? Maybe Ben and Chon's airheaded arrogance is Stone's commentary on American hubris, but I couldn't swallow the level of cluelessness on display in this allegedly real-world-set movie.
From the moment they leave the meeting to the moment THEY SEND OPHELIA TO THE SHOPPING MALL ALONE TO BUY CLOTHES FOR THE TRIP, our de facto heroes are followed by Elena's head goon, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), and his army of assassins disguised as day-laborers and cops. In fairness, one of Chon's beefcake buddies tails Ophelia on her trip, but is quickly dispatched without her knowing it-- leading to the kidnapping that (unfortunately) sets Savages' real plot into high gear.
Let's pull over for a second. Why did her bodyguard drive a separate car? Was Chon worried that someone might follow her? If so, why let her out on the street in the first place? He should have at least insisted that someone drive with her. I guess that would've aroused suspicion, considering the fact that Ophelia's toxic personality likely keeps away everyone who's not protecting or fucking her--and would've been a dead giveaway to any pursuers.
Anyway, Savages very quickly stops being about the drug trade and turns into a hostage picture. When Ben and Chon figure out that Elena has a daughter in the states (who happens to walk right past Ophelia in Laguna's teeny-tiny Galleria shopping center), they kidnap her and arrange for one of those middle-of-nowhere swaps that haven't been cinematically effective since The Hangover parodied them three years ago.
In the interim, we get a lot of business about moles in Elena's organization and an every-muddying storyline involving Ben and Chon's clandestine partnership with a corrupt DEA agent named Dennis (John Travolta). We're also treated to a sub-movie in a totally different genre, one in which Ophelia kind of becomes the daughter that Elena wishes she had--namely one who shows up for dinner. One of the film's coolest scenes doesn't involve torture, chainsaws, or gunplay; it sees Elena taking Ophelia to task for being a rich waste of flesh who has zero clue about hardship.*
Despite my numerous problems with Savages, I was at least happy to see the three leads die horrible deaths at the end. The hostage switch goes horribly wrong, as they always do in these movies. Ben gets shot in the neck and Chon busts out a trio of what look to be cyanide epipens so that Juliet and her two Romeos can drift into the afterlife together.
But wait! Turns out senility has turned Oliver Stone into a full-on prankster: As the camera pulls out from the dead bodies, Ophelia's narration busts in with, "At least, that's how I imagined it..."
We're then assaulted with a crazy rewind of the last ten minutes and a feel-good do-over of the hostage switch--one in which DEA helicopters swoop in to arrest the "bad guys", and Ben, Chon, and Ophelia's connection with Dennis lands them on an Indonesian beach instead of behind bars.
Believe me when I say that it took every ounce of self control to not jump out of my seat and scream "FUUUUUCK YOU!" at the screen. Not only is it the most dishonest movie ending I've seen in awhile, it completely muddles whatever message Stone was trying to squeeze out of the screenplay he wrote with Don Winslow and Shane Salerno.
I'm not a prude or anything, but there's a disturbing pro-pot theme at play here that rubs me the wrong way. Ben and Chon's weed was smuggled from Afghanistan and fully processed in safe, underground labs, which conveniently shields them of the part of the process that usually involves dealing directly with people and organizations whose cultivation of recreational drugs ruins lives. The effects of marijuana may be harmless, but the politics of it are absolutely not. By rewarding their naive characters with the happily-ever-after lives of carefree, frolicking millionaires, the filmmakers fail to deliver consequences to anyone in their movie except the dirty Mexican drug lords (who, of course, are frequently referred to as "savages").
The one shining light in this movie is Hayek, Del Toro, and Travolta's triumvirate of cool. The three of them are top-notch. In fact, this may be the least showboating performance of Travolta's career. Had Savages been a real movie about and for adults, it could have easily contended for Best Picture. As it stands, it's a tired retread full of dipshit kids, helmed by someone who pretended not to know better while abandoning their creative ambitions.
*The audience figured this out several scenes earlier, when Ophelia asked her kidnappers if she could get a salad to eat in her grimy basement prison. But it was nice to see someone in the movie address her unacceptable behavior.