Oliver Stone has an interesting resume. The first half of his career focused on gritty dramas and biopics, for which he has received numerous awards and accolades; since the mid-1990s, however, fanfare surrounding his work has tapered off. With his newest film Savages, he strays into what is seemingly unfamiliar territory: A twisting revenge thriller that, in the end, feels more like a boring Michael Bay film.
Savages focuses on Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a pair of drug dealers who hold near-complete control of the marijuana trade in Orange County due to their potent strains and savvy business practices. Together they share Ophelia (Blake Lively), a free-spirited blonde who serves as narrator. Despite the persistence of corrupt DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta), the two are unwilling to strike a deal with a notorious Mexican drug cartel, lead by the vicious Elena (Salma Hayek), to join forces. In retaliation, Elena sends Lado (Benicio del Toro), her right-hand man, to kidnap Ophelia, ultimately forcing Ben and Chon to employ their vast network to fight off the cartel and rescue.
Despite its high-gloss sheen, fancy transitions, and the guiding hand of Stone, Savages is little more than an action film that forgot it’s an action film. Sure, the scenes are there, and they’re certainly impressive – bullets fly, things get blown up, and people get killed in an incredibly brutal and bloody fashion – but these are too few and far between, cropping up to give a respite from everything that surrounds it. It’s all talk talk talk, which is fine at some points, but the characters, bless their hearts, simply don’t have the chutzpah to deliver the type of performances we want to see in a revenge thriller. Despite revenge being a primary, albeit subtle, motive, everything seems so passive. The script is a convoluted mess, preferring a flat voice-over courtesy of Blake Lively explaining the events that unfold on the screen over. It’s a cheap trick, one that takes away from the impact the film might have had the screenwriters preferred to actually tell a story instead of make it one of the character’s.
Of the protagonists, Johnson and Kitsch complement each other, playing different men with different ideologies, each of which has its place in the business. As the film progresses, Ben’s Buddhist philosophy is put to the test as Chon compels him to act violently and kill in order to rescue Ophelia. It’s engaging to see how Ben reconciles his actions with his love for Ophelia and best friend, but its impact is lessened by stilted dialogue and emotional platitudes that do less to play on the sympathy of the characters and their actions and more to just make you roll your eyes.
Perhaps the one of the biggest detriments to the film is Blake Lively, as at no point do you actually care about her fate. She’s the catalyst for everything, but in the end, who really cares? The rest of the cast is suitable, albeit not flawless: Salma Hayek shines as Elena, though it feels as if her character could have been explored in a way to make her more sympathetic, which is necessary given her thin back story; as Lado, Del Toro plays the evil henchman who kills without remorse well enough to where you can almost ignore his horribly stereotypical Mexican accent; and John Travolta, who proves he’s great in a supporting role, is sadly underutilized as the corrupt DEA agent dealing with a family and a cancer-stricken wife. His best scenes come when paired with del Toro, providing some witty banter that adds a touch of genuine comedy to the film that is, for the most part, lacking.
By the time the film winds down in an expected violent fashion, a deus ex machina ending pulls the rug out from under you, gives you the middle finger, then spits in your face. It’s an insulting end to a film that struggles with its identity; as a revenge thriller it’s mostly boring, and as a drama it’s just irritating. The script can’t be saved by Stone’s touch, but given his recent output, can any film?