Oliver Stone’s track record of late has increasingly become a case of diminishing returns, and even revisiting the world which resulted in one of his early, career-defining films (2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) wasn’t enough to pull him out of a creative slump. While Savages is a noticeable improvement on that film, it still suffers from an over reliance of visual dressing (the opening is an exact facsimile of a Calvin Klein ad) and a saggy narrative which feels like it’s taken a lungful of the high-grade chronic the two protagonists grow.
Chon and Ben (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively) are friends and business colleagues who live in the beautiful gated seaside community of Laguna Beach. They produce some of the finest weed available in the western world through a mutually beneficial partnership (Harvard educated Ben is the brains, while Iraq vet Chon provides the brawn) and their idea of a joint venture also extends beyond work, as they both share the same gorgeous young girlfriend, ‘O’ (Blake Lively).
Their blissful lifestyle is disrupted by the arrival of a notorious Mexican drug cartel headed by Elena (Salma Hayek), who dispatches her lawyer (Oscar nominee Demián Bichir) and hatchet man, Lado (Benicio del Toro) to broker a deal with the Californian duo. As to be expected, Chon and Ben are a little hesitant in joining forces, so as a means of strong-arming the pair, Elena has her crew kidnap O. With the clock ticking (Stone actually uses a digital countdown splashed across the screen at one juncture) they set out to save their loved one, enlisting the help of a crocked DEA agent (John Travolta) and Chon’s fellow ex-grunts.
It’s a potentially juicy set-up, but instead of a rollicking OTT crime yarn, what follows is a plodding, episodic affair which doesn’t pile on the pulp anywhere close to what Stone achieved with his underrated neo-noir U-Turn, and for the most part, lacks the dramatic weight evident in his earlier, superior work. The kaleidoscopic flourishes of Natural Born Killers crop up momentarily (b&w inserts, washed-out film stock, abstract cutaways, Dutch tilts, etc) but they feel even more superfluous and meaningless here, simply acting as visual padding and adding zilch to the story.
His efforts are also stymied in the casting of Lively as the damsel in distress. Her superficial rich girl routine comes across as largely unsympathetic (a fault which must also be attributed to the writing) and as the time ebbs away whilst she’s held captive, it grows incredibly hard to stay emotionally invested in her fate. The anodyne narration she delivers (which is peppered with some excruciatingly overwrought lines) doesn’t help things either.
The rest of the cast fare much better (an area which has always remained a strong attribute of the director) and both Johnson and Kitsch are pretty decent, if never really given the opportunity to fully let rip. It falls instead to the more seasoned cast members to make the bigger impression, and two pleasant surprises here are both Travolta and Hayek. Neither has been this strong in years, but its del Toro who ultimately runs away with the film, bringing an off-kilter quality to the material (complete with a peculiar, nasally Mexican accent) which the film is crying out for.
By the time the cheated ending reveals itself, most of the audience goodwill has been spent, and although Stone desperately wants to be down with the kids, his efforts end up looking dated and, sadly, a little irrelevant.