It took a Facebook communiqué from a friend, asking what I thought about Savages, for my thoughts to crystallize:
"I was mixed," I wrote. "Liked the action, thought the acting by the three heroes (and the writing for them) kind of sucked."
Which about sums it up. This film by Oliver Stone, based on a snappy novel by Don Winslow (who co-wrote the script with Shane Salerno), springs to life when the action gets cracking -- and settles into stoned somnolence when it turns its attention back to its central trio.
The story focuses on the romantic triad of Ophelia (or "O," as everyone calls her) played with uninviting dimness by Blake Lively; Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a stoner mercenary; and Ben (Aaron Johnson), a genius botanist with do-gooder, nonviolent impulses. They live together, love together -- well, not quite the whole polyamorous package because, while Chon and Ben both are boning O, they don't seem to have eyes for each other.
The point is that this movie shifts into neutral whenever it zooms in the three amigos, living large in Laguna Beach, where Ben's plant-breeding and Chon's business acumen have turned Ben's unique marijuana hybrid into the weed of choice for surfers and businessmen alike in smoke-happy SoCal. It's a sweet life -- until it's not.
Because now the Mexican cartel wants in. A drug family led by Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek) sends her attorney Alex (Demian Bichir) to negotiate a deal in which Ben grows strictly for her and takes a percentage of the profits. When the trio turns down her offer, she sends her vicious enforcer, Lado (Benicio del Toro), who kidnaps O to convince the boys to make the deal.
Ben and Chon have other ideas. They go after Elena's stateside operation, attacking her various outposts while wearing masks to convince her that she has a rat and/or a mole (or perhaps a dreaded rat-mole) in her ranks, who's selling her out to rivals and/or the DEA.
When Stone can focus on the brutal violence of those action setpieces -- whether it's Ben and Chon ripping off one of Elena's stash houses or Lado going after a small-timer (Shea Whigham) who has missed a few payments -- Savages jumps to life. Stone is in his element, cranking up the graphic imagery of what bullets do to flesh in ways that seem particularly shocking in the moment. He understands just how terrifying this kind of arbitrary, unstoppable violence can be.
There's just one problem: The subsidiary characters, from Lado and Elena to a corrupt DEA agent played with high-energy cynicism by John Travolta, are soooo much more interesting than the heroes.
When the trio is onscreen, their dialogue, much of it lifted straight from Winslow's witty, exciting novel, feels canned and cardboard. So maybe it's not the writing, but the acting.
Kitsch, who's already struck out this year in John Carter and Battleship, finds one note -- anger -- to play as the unstoppable Chon. Lively tries to name that tune in even fewer notes, playing O as a total blank. She succeeds, creating a zero at the center of the film -- and, as a result, you continually wonder just why these two guys are risking life, limb and commerce for this dimwit. Johnson, whose star seems to be about to blink out after prominent turns in the unimpressive Nowhere Boy and Kick-Ass, plays Ben as a scruffy, nasally nerd with a douchey ponytail and a conscience.
By contrast, Hayek is a full-bodied monster, her explosive temper carefully hidden behind manicured looks and a calm exterior. Del Toro chews the scenery as the shifty, sadistic Lado, even when he's barely whispering. And Travolta seems to be squirting adrenaline from his pores as the drug agent who is never quite as smart as he thinks and seems constantly to be talking his way out of sticky situations.
Stone hasn't made a movie like this (a movie about bad people with guns) since 1997's almost unwatchable U-Turn. He scales back the stylistic tricks -- many fewer shifts from one film format to another, less overall Tony Scottishness -- and puts the action front and center. And those action sequences have undeniable impact.
When the bullets fly and the knives come out, Savages springs to gory, spurting life. Too much of the film, however, showcases its pretty stars' shortcomings -- and they're almost significant enough to sink the film.
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