A few weeks ago I chatted on the phone with my Dad who took the opportunity to explain the reincarnation of the infamous eighties TV drama Dallas on TNT. He proceeded to list the various twists and turns that one particular episode had taken and, being honest, I could not for the life of me re-describe all these twists and turns because I could not even keep track of them while he was reciting them to me. This is to suggest that Savages, the new film from famed auteur Oliver Stone, based on a novel by Don Winslow, is a bit like Dallas for the movie screen……if you grew up listening to Bob Marley. It is big and loud and fast and a virtual deluge of twists and turns and, above all, it is both exuberant and utterly inconsequential.
The film is narrated by O (Blake Lively), short for Ophelia, the first of a few Shakespeare references (in fact, let’s call Savages a tragicomedy), the beguiling antonym of the third wheel with a couple dudes who operate a high tech pot growing business. They are Ben (Aaron Johnson), “The Buddhist”, the peace-loving brains of the operation, and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), “The Baddist”, an ex-Navy SEAL who acts as Ben’s muscle. The trio lives large, depending on the assistance of a corrupt DEA agent (John Travolta) to keep the scheme afloat, dwelling in a beachfront home in Laguna, and so into “community” that O willingly shares herself with both guys and neither guy is upset about it – perhaps because Ben and Chon have more of an Iceman and Slider thing going they would ever be willing to admit. They have been in the high life for so long it is only inevitable that something will put a stop to it.
That something is a powerful Mexican drug cartel run by the operatic Elena Sanchez (the operatic Salma Hayek), whose business is flailing for any number of reasons and desperately wants the boys’ product and customer base. Her devious associates approach Ben and Chon who turn down her “offer”. We use quotation marks because the offer is less an offer than an order. And when the boys refuse to oblige, her right-hand man Lado (Benicio del Toro), kidnaps O and bam! We’re off and running.
They say beauty is skin deep and, rest assured, Savages is both about beautiful people and really only ever skin deep. For example, the script gives Elena a daughter who wants nothing to do with her mother which, in theory, presents the opportunity to make O the daughter Elena never really had, though instead just uses it as set-up for a crucial piece of plotting late in the film. These characters are cliches and stereotypes which isn’t problematic as much as it is Stone employing them as shorthand. Ben is the tree-hugger from Berkeley so he’s got the dreads and Chon is ex-military so he’s got the crew-cut and O is blonde because, like, duh, she’s a California Gurl (“fine, fresh, fierce”) and even able to appear glamorous when chained up in a makeshift dungeon and deprived – egads! – of “salad”. (My favorite, though, was Emile Hirsch, briefly glimpsed a couple times, as the gang’s money laundering expert/bicycling enthusiast).
The leading trio, however, epitomizes the perceived vapidity of O.C. culture (which maybe is Stone’s point, which would be awesome) whereas Hayek and Del Toro and Travolta are more experienced and more versatile actors and, thus, cut loose and have more fun. Hayek vamps as if she is on the worst (read: best) soap opera south of the border. Del Toro uses costuming to fine effect and somehow manages to go over the top without forcing the issue. (There is a shot toward the end of Del Toro that quotes a shot of Del Toro’s Oscar-winning performance in Traffic, a film more potently about the drug war. I cannot think Stone was unaware.) Travolta ably portrays a gonzo with a badge attempting to balance a plethora of illegalities at once.
Stone has gone on record as supporting the legalization of marijuana but thankfully does not take this film as his platform to get political. Make no mistake, he takes the material seriously, yet by taking it so seriously it allows its own exaggerated nature to shine through. This is a movie about nothing more than its own rubric’s cube of insanity. (Does this mean it glorifies drugs? Hey, did YOU see all those guys get their heads chopped off at the beginning. Uh, no thanks. I like my drug-free life fine.)
If anything might provoke discussion it will be the end. It could potentially be viewed as a cheat. I, however, saw it as a Choose Your Own Adventure. Let’s be honest, if the term was Airport Rack DVD instead of Airport Rack Book, Savages would define the term to a tee. It’s trash – tripped-out, ebullient trash – that you watch while you’re on vacation. And on vacation you don’t choose BETWEEN the fudge brownie sundae and the chocolate torte, you have both.