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Savages Review

By Joe Lozito

Drug Bust


Oliver Stone is back! But he's a little rusty. It could be that he's lost his edge after toiling in the middle-ground for his last few outings. (How could "W." have been so even-handed? How could "World Trade Center" have been so lacking in controversy? How could "Alexander" have been so ... boring?) Sure, maybe it's unfair; we berate Mr. Stone for being a provocateur but then condemn him for not going far enough. But, yes, we don't need a neutered Oliver Stone. We've got enough of those. We like our Oliver Stone a little unhinged.

With "Savages", the story of two southern California pot dealers who fall into escalating episodes of violence with a Mexican drug cartel, Mr. Stone attempts to recapture the grit, gore and gravitas of his "Natural Born Killers" and "U-Turn" days. He's a great filmmaker, and the film is an exercise in visceral thrills but, when it comes to moving the audience, "Savages" falls flat.

Mr. Stone optioned Don Winslow's much-praised novel almost immediately upon its publication. Though it makes no grand statements about the war on drugs or the legalization of marijuana, it is, from what I understand, a razor-sharp crime thriller. Somewhere between Mr. Winslow's novel and the screenplay - which the author cowrote with Mr. Stone and Shane Salerno - the story's edge got dulled. And despite a few mild twists and turns, most of what's left is fairly pat. In fact it belongs to the group of Quentin Tarantino/Elmore Leonard knock-offs that plagued multiplexes in the wake of "Pulp Fiction" and "Get Shorty".

Perhaps unsure of how provocative he wants to be, Mr. Stone keeps the pace high, injects a few flashes of brutal violence, and lets his supporting cast attempt to out-camp each other. Salma Hayek has the time of her life as the pampered drug kingpin. And, speaking of "Pulp Fiction", John Travolta is on hand to play a corrupt Fed, giving one of those John Travolta performances that remind you that he can be a lot of fun. But Benicio Del Toro wins the prize. Always a pleasure to watch, Mr. Del Toro adds another to his list of memorable characters (for someone who's played Fred Fenster and Dr. Gonzo, that's really saying something). To paraphrase "Tropic Thunder", he "goes full psycho". Literally twirling his mustache, he makes Javier Bardem from "No Country for Old Men" look like the teddy bear from "Ted".

The bottom line is: Mr. Del Toro is every bit as unpredictable as the film isn't. As for the plot, the two drug dealers, the brainy Ben (Aaron Johnson from "Kick-Ass") and the brauny Chon (the ubiquitous Taylor Kitsch), both live in a believability-crushing romance with one woman, Blake Lively's "O" (short for Ophelia). She's one of those tanned beach goddesses that elder film directors fawn over and, truly, a director hasn't been this in love with his leading lady since Woody Allen met Scarlett Johansson.

For her part, Ms. Lively is a good sport, but O is never more than a function of the plot. Being saddled with two lovers and an over-used voice-over is simply too much for the young actress. Likewise, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Kitsch do what they must, though their character's choices are so poor that there's little left to root for. Even when it comes to the finale, Mr. Stone plays it safe. The Oliver Stone of the old days would have gone for it. This one attempts to have it both ways. Which leaves you wondering what he's been smoking. And leaves the movie feeling sanitized, like a drug that's been cut one too many times.

What did you think?

Movie title Savages
Release year 2012
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary Despite a quick pace and a few flashes of brutal violence, Oliver Stone's narcotics thriller feels sanitized, like a drug that's been cut one too many times. 
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