From the opening seconds following the Universal logo to the tooth gratingly awful cover of The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun” that plays over the film’s all too late THE END title card, there isn’t a more ungainly, unfocused, idiotic, and overall unpleasant film thus far this year than Oliver Stone’s Savages. Even worse than The Devil Inside (which actually for all its awfulness picked a tone and stuck to it), there’s not a single thing I can really say about the film to recommend it. Stone aims to create what one could only defend as a nihilistic satire, but it’s directed with too much control by a burnt out hippy who just wants to smoke a J without being harassed by the man to be nihilistic, and its also not funny or knowing enough to be an actual satire. The war on drugs was astoundingly less insulting and more believable in Bad Boys 2, and I fully understand just how stupid that statement sounds.
Laguna Beach, California besties Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and their shared girlfriend Ophelia, or O for short (Blake Lively), are living the dream selling both medicinal and illegal high grade chronic until one day when a Mexican cartel decides they want a piece of the action and offers to buy them out in exchange for not blowing their brains out where they stand. The Buddhist hippy Ben wants to get out of the life to focus on his humanitarian work in Africa and Asia where he thinks he can bring solar energy, but the former Afghan war veteran and muscle man Chon thinks they can do better on their own and begs for a renegotiation on a shitty deal. During the renegotiation, the cartel leader (Salma Hayek) has her henchman (Benicio Del Toro) kidnap O to speed up the process and prove they mean business just as the friends are preparing to skip town. Extremely bummed out that they have no money, dope, or girlfriend to show for all their hard work in the drug game, they decide to go to war with the cartel head on in a cat and mouse game of… well, I couldn’t ever possibly care less since it’s practically indecipherable.
From the get-go, it’s apparent that the actors populating this film aren’t so much characters as they are lists of attributes that Stone himself personally identifies with, as laid bare with quite possibly the worst narration in movie history from Lively who quite appropriately sounds wasted, but more on that in a moment. Chon is simply an amped up war guy who doesn’t have orgasms when he has sex with O in the first five minutes of the film, but someone who has “wargasms.” Ben deals in illicit supplies and seemingly lives in blissful denial of how Chon is constantly protecting him from people who want him dead on a daily basis, because he is at heart a really great and peaceful dealer. As for O, she’s simply a naive idiot and a very standard unreliable sort of narrator who probably couldn’t tie her shoes if her boyfriends weren’t around. One would think from the way the film tap dances around it that there would be a deep homoerotic subtext around how much Chon and Ben probably love each other, but Stone and his co-writers Shane Salerno (Armageddon, AVP: Requiem) and Don Winslow (adapting his apparently well received novel) aren’t making a film about actual personal interaction, but rather a hopelessly misguided polemic about why the war of drugs is a joke, man.
Over the course of 130 minutes that quite literally feel like a neverending nightmare replete with two endings (one literally rewinding and starting entirely over again from scratch), Stone allows his sensibilities to run rampant and unchecked in a more incoherent and unfocused manner than in Natural Born Killers and without that film’s sense of blunt force artfulness and pitch black parody. It’s intoxicating in all the wrong ways like a bad trip off a mixture of cocaine, liquid acid, and mouthwash. It shouldn’t be surprising given Stone’s previous track record that he would want to make a film that creates angry parallels between the American “wars” on drugs and terror, but the shocking part is that he has literally nothing of interest to say other than “Damn, man, (deep inhale) shit’s so fucked (exhale).”
The amount of money that the American government throws at fuelling and rarely stopping the flow of drugs should be an easy topic for someone like Stone to make a film about, but without any remotely interesting or logical characters there’s nothing to hang anything resembling drama upon, and with absolutely nothing funny, clever, or perceptive enough to be seen as a modern comedy of errors, what’s the point that Stone is ultimately trying to make? Savages fails at literally everything it attempts every step of the way and it can’t even be bothered to be compelling in how astoundingly it botches the execution.
Instead of simply having a bare bones film about a drug war, we get an awkward cat and mouse game between the dealers and the cartel that takes place 95% over a Skype-like program or over the phone, making it the least cinematically threatening film in quite some time. The fact that these characters very rarely run into each other face to face in the real world means that when they do have to face off there’s absolutely nothing at stake because all they endlessly talk about is how they are going to severely hurt the other party. Even when the film gets its ultraviolence on about halfway through, half of that involves shootouts at long range with snipers.
It doesn’t help matters any that Ben and Chon are so sloppy as drug dealers that it’s unbelievable they even lasted as long as they did. Ben’s perma-stoned and can’t function when he isn’t blazed out of his skull and Chon has such severe PTSD that rain would probably set him off in a rage. It’s amazing that they ever amassed such a fortune with how they lived their life and that they were able to live comfortably for so long. They have enough cash to own fancy cars, hire their own protection team of former military snipers, pay off a local DEA enforcer (a horribly miscast John Travolta in a role so small and useless that it doesn’t even warrant mentioning his involvement any further in this review), and can come up with millions of dollars at the drop of a hat, but yet they can’t come onto the same page for what can’t possibly be the first time their territory is threatened and they’re so stupid that they wear masks in a ransom video of their own when Hayek’s character already knows what they look like? The fact that these characters are played by actors as capable as Johnson and Kitsch (who really doesn’t need this movie right now after John Carter and Battleship) further saddens.
As for the villains, Hayek’s character also makes no sense whatsoever. There’s a hinted at subplot that a former scorned rival is moving in on her territory and that she’s lost a ton of money, but are these two guys from California really worth going to war over despite having such killer bud? I couldn’t help but think that she could have been way more productive going after other targets and people that legitimately wronged her rather than trying to make an example of these guys or trying to send them messages in the form of videos prominently featuring severed heads with effects straight out of MS paint coming accompanied with cutsey ringtones and vaguely threatening emails that end with frowny face emoticons. The amount of time she wastes on her Bond-like escapades could be spent actually righting the ship on her failing business.
With Del Toro, he arguably fares the best out of the cast since he plays the character with the most constantly changing set of morals, but even he can’t salvage the fact that his character would be better off as a faceless, brutish killing machine rather than the masterful tactician Stone wants to make him out to be. He also gets hands down the most pointlessly sleazy scene in the film when he forces O to watch a cell phone video of him raping her while she was drugged and passed out. Before it gets to “the good part” in his words, O spits in his face giving him the money shot he deserves and the one Stone thoughtfully decided to pull back on. But since this scene happens as the final interaction between these two characters and it’s never brought up again or even remotely avenged, then what was the point of even having it?
There’s sadly no helping Lively, though, as her sub-Twilight styled narration not only kills the film, but it also makes her character even more unlikable than when she casually tosses off that she’s a slut in the first ten minutes. She’s really there only primarily as MacGuffin to a threadbare plot that can’t help but spin its wheels for two hours and subtextually so Stone can make some of the most hamfisted Shakespearian references possible from characters constantly acting and joking about how they’re actually incestuously related to the absurdity of the Romeo and Romeo and Juliet first ending to the film.
Now somewhere out there, one of the film’s defenders is saying that I just don’t “get” the film, but in actuality I get it fairly well. Oliver Stone wants to lecture the audience on his feelings on current US drug policies and how they’re inherently flawed, but he’s adopting the insufferable tone of an aging beat poet relic who believes he’s still profound rather than just simply being profane. I also inherently understand the implied sense that all of the characters within this world are constantly high on something meaning they make stupid decisions, but that’s no cover for this thoroughly lazy script.
Stone is quite literally forcing Savages out onto the screen not because it’s a good film, but because tonally the entire enterprise reeks of such self importance and grandiosity that he can’t enjoy his buzz until we all as a collective consciousness have to be brought down to his level to feel his pain. Much like the characters in his film, he should just stop talking about doing something and just actually do it. That would be far more productive and meaningful than a single frame of this ungodly awful film that I’m positive someone will end up misguidedly calling a masterwork.