Oliver Stone has stumbled out of the gate so far in the 2000s, having not made a memorable film since 1999’s “Any Given Sunday.” Somewhere along the way, he lost his knack for powerful storytelling, and “Savages” is merely the latest example of the gradual downhill turn in his career.
Being told as a modern-day “Romeo & Juliet,” the film is a love story with a violent twist. Best friends Ben and Chon are local pot dealers who have made their way from modest independent growers to the most notorious marijuana dealers in southern California. Ben is an ex-Navy SEAL who served in Iraq and acts as the muscle, where Chon is the easygoing Buddhist/humanitarian.
Ophelia is the proverbial Juliet of the movie but the main source of frustration throughout, as well. She is the center of the boys’ universe and loves them equally for opposite reasons — romantically involved with both of them, to boot, although the trio gets along swimmingly. Even in a perfect universe, it’s hard to imagine a world in which this love triangle could exist without any flaws, but much like Romeo and Juliet, the trio is hopelessly in love with one another and that’s all that matters.
Their undying love is put to the test when Ophelia gets kidnapped by the Mexican cartel in a business deal gone awry. Ben and Chon are propositioned to join the cartel, but when they refuse, they set into motion a string of unfortunate events, further entangling them with the cartel. Through the use of their tech-savvy group of friends and a DEA snitch played by John Travolta, the guys vow to bring down the entire cartel in order to get their dear Ophelia back.
It’s a run-of-the-mill story set against a violent backdrop. The acting is top-notch, but unfortunately, it’s the supporting cast that stands out. Benicio del Toro and Salma Hayek are particularly brutal in their execution. Travolta, who has grown accustomed to playing the role of a scumbag, does an excellent job as well. However, the central cast of young up-and-coming stars fall just short of vapid. It’s hard to tell whether it’s a lack of character development or merely subpar acting performances, but there just isn’t any substance in the central characters. Truth be told, it’s probably a little bit of both.
Unlike the film’s drab young stars, Stone’s choice of shot composition is anything but vapid. In fact, “Savages” is a dizzying array of nearly every camera choice imaginable. There’s an overabundance of handheld usage and even a great deal of “Skyping” to be had in the film. Amid that 21st-century nightmare is a slew of black and white flashbacks, overexposed shots, sepia-toned colors and shaky-cam action scenes. It’s really quite the spectacle to behold, but not in a good way. It’s as if Oliver Stone couldn’t choose between a classic narrative style or a more modernized up-to-date style, so he just threw everything creative at the wall and hoped something would stick. Unfortunately for him, nothing did, and the film is left with a schizophrenic personality.
“Savages” is truly a paradox of cinema. It suffers from being particularly over-the-top and yet unmemorable at the same time. It’s explicitly violent but shallow in its conception. At its heart, the film is a tragic love story, but in reality it’s merely a murder-by-numbers flick with not enough complex characters to hold together the interest of most audiences. In a world of boring copycat thrillers, I expected a lot more out of “Savages,” especially given the director at the helm and the cast itself.