There must have been a secret on the Savages set that didn’t quite make the rounds. Benicio Del Toro heard it. John Travolta got it. So did Salma Hayek, God love her. The news was this: Play it campy, super campy—like one shade away from a gleaming Spanish-language telenovela. But not every player or writer in Oliver Stone’s scattered drug cartel drama goes far enough, leaving Savages a mess.
So, while Travolta, Del Toro and Hayek happily chew the scenery—hell, the latter two practically devour it—far too much of the film wants to be taken seriously. The ham-it-up approach could have been nailed from the get-go, during an introductory voiceover by an aimless California girl nicknamed “O” (Blake Lively), who tells us about her love for two pals (she screws them both in the first 10 minutes), their lucrative marijuana business, and that she may or may not be alive, as this breathy narration could have been pre-recorded. But Lively lacks the voice-over chops, and the necessary fire and daring onscreen, to make the slinky siren role work.
Nonetheless, this is kitschy stuff. Well really, it’s Kitschy stuff, with 2012 blockbuster boy Taylor Kitsch (John Carter, Battleship) as Chon, an aggressive war veteran who chooses to “fuck the war out of himself” during sex (as O tells us). He’s one half of the ganja connection; the other is the earthy, hippie, save-the-world scientist, Ben (Brit Aaron Johnson).
If the dialogue between Chon and Ben jumped headfirst into cornball stereotypes—the characters’ contrast is set up for it—Savages would again have been on its way, but the chatter comes up far short. The guys’ conversation about whether to give in to a Mexican drug lord is painfully basic, direct from the “I have a bad feeling about this” School of Screenwriting. Neither actor has much to work with, resulting in a desperately bland setup.
Things change when Benicio Del Toro comes lumbering onscreen, a hulking drug flunky named Lado, shooting off a lawyer’s kneecaps and coming to snatch O from her happy beachside world. Del Toro works his trademark mumble and excellent instincts to perfection, creating an intimidating bad guy with a wry, sometimes unintended sense of humor. He even scowls and fiddles with his bushy mustache, cementing his role as Dastardly Do-Wrong.
As a double-crossing federal agent, Travolta also fits the bill, playing the fast-talking, fast-thinking cop cliché with zip and accuracy. In one of Savages’ best scenes, he and Del Toro end up in the same house (no spoiler here), Travolta the ham, Benicio the cheese, with a hilarious edit by Stone that even holds the tomatoes. Literally.
Hayek goes the femme fatale route, cool as steel with some of the funnier, more melodramatic lines in the film. But her on-the-money showmanship—like the way she tears into a plate of lamb chops—only highlights the film’s painful inconsistency. The script feels like it was written by 10th graders sharing a pencil (Stone with Shane Salerno and novelist Don Winslow), jotting down immature ideas that wouldn’t have passed the Tarantino cool test back when QT was still a video store clerk.
Compared to the successful over-the-top performances of the veterans, the three younger leads seem flat and lifeless. Were they under-directed or possibly not in on the joke? Come on! You’re in a kidnapping standoff with very bad guys! Running commando ambushes with IEDs and Navy SEALS! Growing miles of weed! The least they could do is look like they’re having fun.
Writer: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, Oliver Stone
Starring: Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Benicio Del Toro, John Travolta, Demián Bichir, Salma Hayek, Emile Hirsch
Release Date: July 6, 2012