CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SAVAGES (2012)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(The Scene: A California beach. MICHAEL ARRUDA & L.L. SOARES sit on the back steps of a luxurious beach house, facing the ocean. A beautiful blonde bikini babe approaches them.)
WOMAN: I love both you guys. (to MA) I love your sensitivity and your intelligence.
MA (holding a book and some flowers): Gee, thanks. (blushes)
WOMAN (to LS): And I love your boldness and your strength.
LS (puffing on a stogie and holding a chainsaw in his lap): You better believe it, baby!
WOMAN: It’s the perfect relationship.
MA (points to LS): Except he doesn’t like to share.
LS: Share? What, are you in pre-school? It’s only natural that she should like me more than you
MA: Well, I disagree. As usual, you’re missing the point, which is—.
LS: Which is I’m the better critic than you. (revs up chain saw) Hell, I’m better at everything than you!
MA: Them’s fighting words!
(MA squeezes the flowers and they squirt a thick green goo onto LS’s face.)
LS (drops chainsaw and covers his eyes): I’ve been slimed! Someone grab Slimer before he gets away!
WOMAN: Stop it! Stop it! You’re ruining the moment. Why can’t things be like in the movies? (She stomps away).
MA: Because movies aren’t real.
(Sad violin music fills the soundtrack)
MA: But the best movies are the ones that make you believe they’re real. Speaking of which, we have a movie to review, SAVAGES (2012), the new movie from director Oliver Stone. Shall I start this one?
LS: Be my guest while I wipe this slime off my face.
MA: SAVAGES is Oliver Stone’s latest movie, and if I may say so, it’s the best Stone film I’ve seen in a while. It’s an intense crime thriller about two young men who run a profitable marijuana business, and live with their shared girlfriend. Life is great until they run afoul of a Mexican drug cartel.
Ben (Aaron Johnson) is the brains behind the business, while Chon (Taylor Kitsch) provides the muscle, and O (Blake Lively)—named after Ophelia from “Hamlet” —is their shared girlfriend—the glue that holds them together.
LS: They actually have a believable relationship. And it’s nice to see a ménage a trois actually work in the movies!
MA: O also serves as the story’s narrator. Supposedly, they grow some of the best marijuana in the world, which makes their business both extremely profitable and noticeable, which is one of the reasons why a Mexican drug cartel is interested in moving in on their operation. The cartel offers them a deal, in which they promise to distribute Ben’s and Chon’s product and provide them with protection, in return for learning the men’s growing secrets and 20 % of the profits.
When Ben and Chon refuse the deal, the cartel’s leader, Elena (Salma Hayek, in a movie-stealing performance) orders her henchman, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), to kidnap O so that she can teach the men a lesson in “manners.” With O in her clutches, Lado is now able to dictate terms, but Ben and Chon decide to fight back, and fight back with a vengeance. To do so, they need to cash in all their chips and involve everyone in their organization, including a crooked Federal Drug Enforcement agent named Dennis (John Travolta), who plays so many sides it’s difficult to know who he’s aligned with and who he’s against.
In effect, Dennis is a lot like the entire movie. Everyone seems to be in it for themselves, and you don’t know who to trust; everyone, that is, except for Ben and Chon. You know exactly where they stand. They are completely loyal to each other and to O, and this solid bond is one of the many strengths of the movie.
LS: Yeah, they’re order, and everyone else around them is pure chaos.
MA: I loved SAVAGES. Other than THE AVENGERS (2012), it’s the best movie I’ve seen this year. It has a rich, literate story— you can tell it’s based on a novel, by screenwriter Don Winslow—fully developed characters, very strong acting performances, and superb direction by Oliver Stone. This one’s a winner from beginning to end.
LS: Yeah, since the book is almost always better than the movie, this movie made me wanted to seek out Winslow’s book right afterwards. If the book is better in this case, then it’s gotta be killer!
MA: The cast was excellent. At long last, I finally enjoyed a performance by Taylor Kitsch. While you liked him in JOHN CARTER (2012) and BATTLESHIP (2012) and I didn’t, I can’t say that here.
LS: Wait a minute! While I’ll admit I am a huge fan of JOHN CARTER—man, did that movie get a bad rap—I never once said I liked BATTLESHIP. Kitsch does what he can with his role, but BATTLESHIP was pretty awful. I just want to set the record straight.
MA: I didn’t say you liked the movie BATTLESHIP. I said you liked Kitsch’s performance in the movie, or at least you said he was serviceable, while I didn’t like his performance at all.
Anyway, Kitsch is excellent here as Chon, the muscle of the partnership. But the most important part of his performance and his character, and the same holds true for Aaron Johnson as Ben and Blake Lively as O, is that he’s likeable. In effect, the guy’s a drug dealer, but that doesn’t stop you from liking the guy. One of his defining moments, in an argument with Ben, is when he’s talking about their commitment to getting O back, and he yells that he’s never left a man behind, referring to his days in the military. In that moment, you know what he’s all about. He feels personally responsible for protecting O, and he’ll stop at nothing to see that she’s safe again.
LS: Look, I’ve been singing Kitsch’s praises since he played Tim Riggins in the TV series FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (2006 – 2011). So this just confirms what I already knew.
MA: Aaron Johnson is just as good as Ben. Johnson, who played Kick-Ass in KICK-ASS (2010) is about as far removed here from that character as one can get. He’s the sensitive one in the partnership, the brains, the man behind the incredible growing method they use for their weed.
LS: Yeah, I liked Ben Johnson a lot in KICK-ASS, and it’s nice to see him turn in another solid performance here.
MA: And while Blake Lively as O isn’t as strong as Kitsch and Johnson, she’s still very good, plus she’s beautiful to boot!
LS: Yeah, this role is a long way from THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS (2005) and the TV show GOSSIP GIRL—and yes, I know she was also in THE TOWN (2010)—but you’re right, she’s good here. Maybe not on the same acting level as Kitsch and Johnson, but, for the most part, she’s fine.
Which brings me to a new feature. “Does It Earn Its R?”
(Two scientists bring out an oversized, clunky computer from the 50s)
LS: I even had a special computer created just for this segment. Let’s see. (he pulls out a punch card and slips it into a slot). Tell us, computer, does SAVAGES earn its R-rating?
(The machine makes all kinds of noises as its lights flash. Then a card pops back out)
LS: Hmmm. Well, it’s got plenty of graphic violence and language. And there are several sex scenes. So those things alone would prove that, yes, this movie definitely earns its R-rating. But what’s this about Blake Lively keeping her clothes on during every single sex scene she’s in? Who does that in real life?
MA: I knew that would bug you. Get over it.
LS: It’s just not an “R” thing to do, that’s all. Especially when her male partners show their butts. Hey, people care about these things!
MA: Well, it’s obvious you care about it. Jeesh!
LS: Anyway, the three main characters—who are all crucial to if this movie will work—are well cast. I don’t have any complaints. Except for the fully-clothed sex thing.
MA: I liked all three of these characters and cared about what happened to them, which is a major reason why I liked SAVAGES so much.
The supporting cast is outstanding as well, perhaps, even better. Benicio Del Toro is absolutely creepy as henchman Lado. I found him scarier here than as the Wolf Man! John Travolta is excellent as Federal Agent Dennis, and Demian Bichir turns in a strong performance as Alex, the lawyer for the cartel who eventually is set up by Chon and Ben.
LS: Yeah, Travolta is really good in this one. Although, I have to admit, as he gets older, he sure is getting awfully creepy-looking. Tony Manero did not age well! But he’s really good in character roles like this. He doesn’t always have to be the star.
(VINNIE BARBARINO, Travolta’s character from the old TV show WELCOME BACK, KOTTER (1975 – 1979) walks along the beach)
VINNIE: Did I hear you say that when I get older, I’m going to be be creepy-looking?
LS: Yes, hate to break it to you Vinnie, but someday you won’t be the heartthrob you were in the 70s.
VINNIE: I can’t believe that! I’d never let myself go.
MA: But you do. You turn into a creepy-looking fat guy.
MA: I said…
LS: Oh, he’s doing his Barbarino schtick.
MA: I think I hear the Sweathogs calling you.
LS: Yeah, I hear the waves are much better on TV Land.
(VINNIE walks away, singing his name over and over)
Demian Bichir is really good here, too. I first noticed this guy as the crime lord Esteban Reyes in the Showtime series WEEDS, and I thought he was amazing in that. Then he got nominated for an Oscar last year for a much more sympathetic role in the movie, A BETTER LIFE. And he’s terrific here.
But I have some issues with Benecio del Toro as Lado. It’s not that I didn’t like his performance. I thought it was a force of nature. I thought he was entertaining in every single scene he’s in, and I think del Toro is a great actor. But I thought it could have been even better if he didn’t play it so over-the-top and went for something more scary. As it is, Lado is almost like a cartoon. But if he’d toned it down a little, it would have made him more intense. And since this guy is a cold-blooded sadist, more intensity would have made the scenes of violence even more uncomfortable to watch. Maybe they let him have a kind of comic relief aspect to his personality to keep things from getting too dark, but personally, I thought some of his scenes were intense, and some made him almost look like a buffoon. If he’d been intense throughout, then there could have been some real scares in SAVAGES.
So I loved his performance, I just would have done it a different way.
MA: Really? I’m not sure which scenes you’re talking about in terms of his coming across as a buffoon. I thought he was pretty disturbing throughout.
But the best of all of them is Salma Hayek as Elena. She pretty much steals the movie as the cutthroat drug lord who, as she says, would slit Chon and Ben’s throats in a heartbeat. She’s amazing. That being said, my personal favorite performance in this movie belongs to Del Toro. He creeped me out throughout the movie.
LS: Hayek is great here. It’s nice to see her get such a meaty role she can really sink her teeth into. And Elena is complex; she is ruthless but she also has vulnerabilities that come to light. I especially liked her scenes with O. There was a real chemistry between the two characters.
MA: Yeah, there’s a moment in the movie where O and Elena bond over a discussion about Elena’s estranged daughter, and there’s another moment where Elena points out to O that her relationship with Ben and Chon is flawed, that it’s obvious that the two men care more for each other than her, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to share her. These scenes are really good.
The screenplay by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, and Oliver Stone is first-rate. It’s one of those stories where you really don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s a rarity in most movies these days. The characters are all fleshed out, and the relationships in the movie work.
LS: Yeah, the cast and the script are perfectly in synch. I liked every single character here.
MA: I bought the three-way relationship between Ben, Chon, and O.
LS: Totally. It’s rare to see a believable relationship between three people, but it totally works here.
MA: There’s also an intense meeting between Agent Dennis and Lado where you’re not sure if Lado’s going to blow Dennis’ brains out. There are lots of key instances like this in the movie, where there’s more going on than what you usually see in a standard crime thriller plot.
LS: Yeah, you’re not always sure how different characters are going to react in certain situations, which is great. I love unpredictability!
MA: The movie even does a good job promoting the positive effects of pot without being preachy.
LS (hides something): What? Me? I wasn’t smoking anything. (exhales smoke)
MA: Oliver Stone does a masterful job directing this movie, from the elegant California beach scenery to the claustrophobic scenes of brutality and torture.
LS: Yeah, I’ve been a fan of Stone’s for a long time, but he is a very uneven director. Sometimes he makes great movies, like PLATOON (1986), the underrated U-TURN (1997), and my all-time favorite Stone movie, NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994), but he’s made some duds, too. And even more movies that could have been great, but were flawed. I think SAVAGES is easily his best movie since the 1990s. And it’s nice to see him make something so strong again. He really is a terrific director when he puts his mind to it.
(KEVIN COSTNER and ANTHONY HOPKINS walk past them on the beach)
COSTNER: I tell you, I have proof that JFK’s death was part of a conspiracy!
HOPKINS (talking like Richard Nixon): I am not a crook.
LS: Get a load of those two weirdos. And why are they wearing suits on the beach?
MA: You see all types out here.
Yes, SAVAGES contains some disturbing scenes, but these scenes don’t get carried away.
LS: Including some scenes with my favorite power tool, the chainsaw!
MA: I was struck by the idea expressed in the movie that these “savages” all have their moments of humanity and vice versa, that those who are humane have their moments of savagery.
At one point, O mentions that she, Ben, and Chon are like Katharine Ross, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), which sets the audience up with the feeling that Ben and Chon, like Butch and Sundance, will be killed by the end of the movie.
Which brings me to the end of the movie. The ending takes a turn that I can see many people not liking, but since I was about to dislike the ending before it took this turn, I have to admit that it worked for me.
LS: Yeah, in effect, the movie has two endings, and at first that kind of annoyed me. But the more I think about it, the more it works.
MA: All in all, SAVAGES is an exceptional movie, worth the price of admission and your time in the theater. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
LS: You know how I was on the fence about PROMETHEUS, whether to give it three and a half knives or four (if I was reviewing it now, it would be 3 ½ )? Well, despite the fact that I thought it was visually terrific, and I liked the cast, the big problem for me was that I didn’t love it. I didn’t totally identify with all the characters and didn’t really care enough about them. In a lot of ways, it was an impressive movie, but it was just lacking something.
In comparison, SAVAGES had me from the get-go. I loved the characters, I wanted to see what they’d do next, and I genuinely cared about what happened to them. This doesn’t happen a whole helluva lot at the movies. So I have to agree with you. Easily one of the year’s best.
MA: I give it four knives.
LS: For once you and I are of the same mind about a movie. I give it four knives as well. And hell, if Benecio Del Toro had been more menacing, I might have even given it a higher rating. But, he’s very entertaining as is.
MA: So I guess we’re saying people should go out and see this movie?
LS: Absolutely! And you don’t even have to pay extra for 3D glasses. SAVAGES is one of the few movies lately that’s not in 3D.
MA: Even better!
(The blonde bikini babe is back)
WOMAN: What, you guys are still here?
MA: We had to review a movie.
WOMAN: Well, its’ time for you two to move out of the beach house. I’ve got a new boyfriend now.
LS: You sure did replace us pretty quick!
WOMAN: And he doesn’t go on and on about movies!
MA: So who is this guy?
WOMAN: Oh here he comes now.
(VINNIE BARBARINO runs up to them from the beach)
VINNIE (singing): Bar-bar-bar-bar-bar-Barino
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives SAVAGES ~four knives.
L.L. Soares gives SAVAGES ~four knives.