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Stylistic choices sink 'Savages'

By Jordan Wright
On July 11, 2012

Part of me wants to view "Savages" as a sort of unintentional companion piece to "Prometheus;" a smart film intending to be a return to form for a classic director held back from the greatness it should have achieved by a handful of flaws. Unlike Ridley Scott's return to science fiction from last month however, Oliver Stone's action thriller on the study of human nature succumbs to too many faults of its craftsman ship for its own good.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, better known to film audiences as the titular character of "Kick-Ass," and Taylor Kitsch, who has been the unfortunate kiss of death for several box-office bombs this year such as "John Carter" and "Battleship," play Ben and Chon respectively, the top marijuana dealers of North America. After refusing to sell their incredibly lucrative business to cartel boss Elena Sánchez -Salma Hayek- with whom they have been discussing a sale with for months, the girl in which they are in a polyamorous relationship with is kidnapped. Ophelia -Blake Lively- is promised by the cartel to be returned upon one year of service but having the most important thing in their lives stripped from them puts the business oriented Ben and shell shocked former Navy SEAL Chon on the path to revenge, using any dirty tactic they need to resort to in order to dismantle the Baja Cartel and get her back.

Stone's commentary on the low points of human nature, as well as the commentary on the Mexican Drug War is assisted by a generally tight screenplay that wastes no time diving right into the stakes and motivations of the characters. Every character is a demonstration of the lows a human being is willing to sink to in order to achieve their desires, as well as a symbol of Drug War being raged today, from the corruption of America's influence, to the apathy of either side of the border that allows it to continue. Although the script's intent to portray the characters with double meanings prevents them from having their own endearing traits to some extent, the slight underwriting of most of the characters is masked by generally impressive performance from the entire cast.

The discovery of the teenage dork from "Kick-Ass" playing a mature and charismatic business man slowly turning into a monster blew me away and has left me hoping that this will be Johnson's break-out film for American audiences. Hayek knocks her role as leader of the Baja Cartel out of the ballpark. Her beauty and dominance serve her well in her femme fatale position but she remains very human, exhibiting a surprising range of emotions as she grows more personally attached to her growing business war with Chon and Ben, as opposed to the robotically stiff demeanor typically expected of her archetype. As her corrupt henchman, Benicio del Toro gives one of the most disgusting and disturbingly villainous performances in quite some time. His sinister demeanor created as a representation of every primal human instinct disturbs, scares, and mesmerizes on an Oscar caliber level.

Even John Travolta gives an energetic performance reminiscent of the heyday of his career as a corrupt DEA agent playing both sides of the conflict. The only actors that come out looking arguably weak are Lively, who is unfortunately given little to do beyond waiting for rescue as well as providing the frame for the story that drags the film down and Kitsch, not due to a bad performance but rather because his role requires him to exhibit very little range in his acting ability.

Stone's overall direction shines, thanks to the film's pacing, commendable performances, and some of the most impressively tense shootouts I've ever seen. Where the film's shortcomings begin, in addition to the characters garnering little emotional attachment and thus a lacking emotional payoff, suffers from general stylistic choices of the storytelling itself made evident the moment "Savages" begins.  

"Savages" is told from the overview of Ophelia long after the events of the film through a rather obnoxious voiceover narration. The decision has no real bearing on the story being told and in fact, regularly distracts from what's going on as the film can't decide whether to keep it consistent or let the story stand independently of her influence on its telling. Beyond what little purpose it serves for the story itself, it unfortunately has a tendency to beat its humanist message over the heads of its viewers. The term savages is dropped and utilized in the narration alone at least three times, as if it desires to make an intelligent statement, while talking down to its audience and hanging it over their heads.

The narration culminates in a final action set piece that follows through with wonderful execution only to cop out at its completion in favor of making the events of the film subjective to the memory of Ophelia in a formalistic filmmaking fashion. What's truly sad and representative of the biggest problem of the entire film is that the ending itself is more in line with what "Savages" was building to than where they tease it going. Unfortunately, the obnoxious attempt to throw the audience for a loop, irreparably ripped me out of the experience at a time in which I should have long been immersed into the film.

This pervasive flaw of "Savages" was so crippling that I could never ignore it no matter how much my opinion on the film flipped back and forth. I understood exactly what Stone was trying to convey and even commend him for fully succeeding. Unfortunately, the little things kill its effectiveness at getting its message across. I fully suspect that the severity of these flaws may be something that bugs only a select few people, myself included, exclusively but as incredible as the majority of this film is, those few things that it gets spectacularly wrong go a long way in ruining the rest of the experience.


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