Thursday 2 August 2012

Movie Review: Savages (2012)

Oliver Stone opens the taps of violence and gore and wades knee deep into the world of drug turf wars. Savages is stark, vivid, and occasionally beautiful in its brutality, but ultimately falls in the gap between where insufficient wit meets extreme violence.

War veteran Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and sensitive botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson) are best friends, and run a successful boutique marijuana operation in California. They grow and supply high grade weed to a large network of distributors, and openly share a girlfriend, Ophelia (Blake Lively), better known as simply O. A ruthless Mexican drug cartel run by Elena (Salma Hayek) wants to muscle in on their business, with the negotiations engineered by lead henchmen Lado (Benicio del Toro), who never stops at simply killing when torturing and decapitating are available options.

When the negotiations fail, Elena's cartel kidnaps O to force Chon and Ben to cooperate. As O endures torture and confinement by Lado and his fellow brutes, Chon and Ben turn to their protector for help, a corrupt Drugs Enforcement Administration agent named Dennis (John Travolta). He provides them with enough information to expose weaknesses in Elena's empire, including revealing the locations of safe houses used as money collection and transfer points. With all sides getting desperate, Elena's daughter Magda (Sandra Echeverria) is also placed at risk as a showdown looms.

Stone places three relatively fresh faces at the front of Savages, and the lack of star power among Chon, Ben and O works well. Stone is free to fill the canvass typically occupied by star personas with some unique colours. Taylor Kitsch (who also starred in 2012's Battleships and John Carter) is the least interesting, but at least here is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars openly enjoying his residual aggressiveness and not succumbing to torture by internal demons. Aaron Johnson gets the more sensitive role, Ben a brilliant botanist and also a caring soul who uses the proceeds of his drugs business to help disadvantaged African villages.

Most engaging is Blake Lively, television's Gossip Girl building her big screen reputation, narrating the movie and proving to be not only the common point in a sizzling sexual threesome, but also the fulcrum of the larger battle between Elena, Ben and Chon. A disruptive prisoner, O is enough of a nuisance to earn an audience with Elena, a savory encounter in which each woman expresses condescending pity towards the other.

The secondary characters are brought to life by movie stalwarts. John Travolta is all smiles and evasiveness as Dennis, a federal agent one misstep away from life in prison, while Benicio Del Toro just ploughs through Savages as the closest thing to the embodiment of the title, but a man who is also as clever as he is violent. Salma Hayek gives Elena some depth, a woman who inherited the business and who clearly enjoys the required ruthlessness, but who is also unable to fortify all her weak spots.

Stone tackles the violence of drug crime head-on, and throws it all on the screen. Mass decapitations, torture, setting victims ablaze, explosions and routine shootings litter Savages, creating a world where lives are cheaper than drugs. It may be slightly over the top in a California context, but Stone is certainly true to the stream of headlines chronicling the endless atrocities in Mexico.

Between the sex, the blood, the corruption and the rival criminals calling each other savages for vastly different reasons, Savages always maintains interest. Despite the chopping of heads, the movie just lacks a cutting edge to push it towards the hyper stylized world it seeks to occupy.

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