Butch Cassidy and the Sunstoned Kid
Renowned for his conspiracy-theorist-themed features, acclaimed left-wing director Oliver Stone's latest project, Savages, is his first work in over a decade that wasn't originally written by him and informed by real-life events. Famous for his Vietnam trilogy (Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon and Heaven & Earth), and for his presidential trilogy (JFK, Nixon and W.); controversial for Natural Born Killers; and notorious for the sheer number of different cuts of Alexander he did in a desperate attempt to perfect it, he hasn't ventured into quite such frivolous, throwaway territory since 1997's U-Turn, which is perhaps the only other film in his career that can be compared to Savages.
I regard U-Turn as one of Stone's most underrated movies, and whilst Savages doesn't come close to achieving that kind of acclaim, it does evoke a certain hyperkinetic Butch-Cassidy-and-the-Sundance-Kid-smoke-weed feel, providing an engaging two-and-a-bit hours of sheer entertainment. And it's also probably the first hard evidence in a long time of Stone actually having fun whilst working his filmmaking magic.
The typically offbeat story is focussed on a cannabis-dealing duo, Chon and Ben, who share not only a business, but also a woman – ‘O’. With a burgeoning enterprise, they gain the attention of a major Mexican drug cartel who make them an offer which they can’t refuse. But they do. It’s not long before the cartel have kidnapped ‘O’ and make the duo jump through hoops in order to ensure her safety, never expecting that these young weed growers may just be planning their own way to get their love back.
Savages – not unsurprisingly for an Oliver Stone film – requires you to be fairly forgiving towards the ludicrous story, not least in the initial set up. Whilst this is not unusual for a Stone film, the premise of two men loving the same girl and being prepared to share her between them – and her loving them both back equally – is probably quite difficult for some to get their heads around. Sure, it’s been done before – perhaps most prominently in the aforementioned Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – but, where that classic film went to great lengths to underplay the relationship; a subtle, less-is-more approach which worked wonders to avoid it becoming a sticking point for the viewer, Savages shoves it in your face right from the get-go, and finds it remarkably difficult to subsequently justify/explain it. When the answer is, it really shouldn’t have bothered at all.
“Chon is cold metal; Ben is warm wood. Chon f**ks; Ben makes love.”
Still, once you do get past it, you realise precisely why Stone was interested in making a movie of this story, written by novelist Don Winslow, before it had even been published! It feels typically Stonian in many respects – the collision of colourful, atypical characters perfectly marrying up to his form of filmmaking (c.f. Natural Born Killers and U-Turn) – and even the manner in which it was written almost marries up to Stone’s filmmaking approach. Whilst the story is essentially a protracted kidnap-and-ransom tale, the motivations behind the characters are cleverly blurred and there are so many damn twists along the way that the tale feels fresh and new, even if not particularly deep and meaningful.
Perhaps that’s the point though – Stone has taken a break from deep and meaningful and has instead returned to pure entertainment. That his end result does not quite work does not mean that it isn’t a large fun, exciting ride to get there. Full of sun, sand, sex, drugs, torture, military ambushes, executions and standoffs, it’s only in the final reel that Stone completely loses his grasp and fails to provide anything even close to a satisfying climax.
As usual he assembles an eclectic cast to carry us on this voyage and, whilst the lead choices are odd – to say the least – I didn’t have any real problems with them. Taylor Kitsch may have gotten this gig based on his performance in Battleship (I kid you not: Stone watched it just to see if the guy had any kind of star worth) but he does his job perfectly well. In fact arguably any faults with the performance come more from the limitations of the character than from his acting skills: he’s tasked with playing the near-emotionless ‘cold metal’, after all; the brawn behind the operation, and that’s exactly what he does.
Even Aaron Taylor-Johnson manages to graduate from his teenage Kick-Ass antics and deliver a reasonably believable co-star performance as ‘warm wood’, the Buddhist negotiator behind the operation. Indeed those who only remember him as ‘the kid from Kick-Ass’ will probably find him barely recognisable here. His character arc is slightly more interesting – but that’s not hard – and it’s perhaps only in the moments where both actors try and convince us of their love for the same girl that the wheels start to come off.
Blake Lively (The Town) certainly makes for a beautifully tanned tamed-wild woman at the centre of this love affair, although she is lumbered with something that neither of the other two have to bear: the voice-over narration. Her clunky, clichéd dialogue is simply terrible; truly difficult to endure. Her actual performance, on the other hand, is pretty good, particularly given that she is put through the ringer on this particular tale, but it’s just a shame that a great deal of the set-up requires us to swallow such inanity from her: words directly ripped from the source novel, no less (so the ultimate blame should probably lay there).
Whilst this trio suffice in the lead roles, it’s the supporting characters that are the truly wild and colourful ones – and it’s here where we get some more familiar, big names. John Travolta (Face/Off, Get Shorty) plays the corrupt DEA Agent who keeps the authorities away from these two drug dealers, given a softer streak which actually feels quite unusual for him; Salma Hayek (From Dusk Til Dawn) is reasonably good as the uber-boss running the cartel, who just so happens to be having her own daughter issues around the time that ‘O’ arrives; and Benicio del Toro (The Usual Suspects, Sin City) desperately wrestles with an initially terrible Mexican accent before ultimately stealing the show, as you only expect him to do, as the mean first lieutenant with a penchant for violence and torture.
As the story progresses, all of these characters cross paths, and betrayal comes thick and fast; the tension remaining fairly strong even though the plot gets stretched thin in the process. Certainly if you’re prepared to go along for the ride, it’s only the double-ending that will probably let you down, something which it is almost impossible to go into any great detail on but, suffice to say, something which has been so distracting for some that it has utterly ruined the entire film experience. And I can see how it would. For those who’ve read the book – they should have just stuck with that ending; commonplace as it may be these days, it’s far better than the alternative. In fact, either choice would have been welcome, but the mistake Stone makes is that he tries to trick the audience by showing that he can have his cake and eat it: something which only smacks of directorial uncertainty, rather than the intended directorial flourish.
In terms of style, however, Stone is undoubtedly at the top of his game. Savages isn’t quite as visually over-the-top as Natural Born Killers – but that’s a good thing – and watching it is intoxicating, but also not outright tiring, which it easily could have been. No doubt a big part of this is due to his newly-formed collaboration with cinematographer Dan Mindel, who is famous for the work he has done with both of the Scott brothers (on the likes of Spy Game and Enemy of the State) as well as with J.J. Abrams on both Mission: Impossible III and the Star Trek reboot movies, so is no stranger to whip-fast editing and hyper-stylisation. He also insisted upon Stone returning to a format which the director has shunned since the mid-nineties – filming using Panavision Anamorphic Lenses rather than trimming the image down from a fuller screen format – and it works wonders. Sure, there are some random black-and-white sequences that are a staple part of Stone features – even if they serve absolutely no purpose other than to be distracting – but the rest of the visuals are superb; flash enough to entertain, skilful enough to impress.
Similarly the score, which includes a few ill-advised remix versions of more familiar classics, works far more often than it doesn’t, and keeps the pace up; largely enhancing the piece alongside the visuals. Whilst ultimately not a clear-cut case of style-over-substance, Savages proves once again that Stone’s stylish decisions and flourishes make a great deal of difference to the enjoyment of one of his features. Whatever misgivings you might have about the story, the ride is certainly a colourful one.
Overall Savages may not suit many, and may disappoint plenty, but it still remains a nice step in a different direction for acclaimed director Oliver Stone. If you’re in a forgiving mood – or just in the right mood – it is certainly an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.
Uncut Theatrical Cut vs. Extended Edition
As is not uncommon with Oliver Stone movies, Savages has received more than one cut. Thankfully here we at least get them presented on the same release (c.f. Alexander!). The Uncut Theatrical Cut runs at 2 hours and 11 minutes in length, and the Extended Edition offers up a further 10 minutes to reach 141 minutes. These 10 minutes are almost purely character development, and almost entirely based around the characters played by John Travolta, Salma Hayek and Benicio del Toro. There are two new arguments between del Toro’s enforcer and his frustrated wife; a more vulnerable contribution from Hayek’s cartel boss; and a tearful scene from Travolta by his wife’s hospital bed. And that’s about it (well, apart from an ill-advised semi-animated cameo by a dancing Oliver Stone!). Funnily enough, though, the Extended Edition does feel slightly more complete, although the pay-off is that the additional del Toro mostly involves more dodgy accent-work than you get in the Theatrical Cut. Does it change the ending? Does it make it any better? Not really, we just get a couple of rearranged scenes for the aforementioned supporting cast, but absolutely nothing to vary the silly double-ending Stone has lumbered this film with. All in all, probably the preferred choice – just about – and certainly a nice option to have on this release, even if it is not a definitively better cut.
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