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Film Review: "SAVAGES"

By Matthew Anders
On July 5, 2012

Ben and Chon, the two main characters of Oliver Stone's newest action release "SAVAGES," share two distinct similarities between each other.

Besides that, the two best friends are complete opposites. Chon is a former U.S. Navy Seal; Ben is a University of California, Berkeley graduate. Chon is a tough guy with a chip on his shoulder; Ben is a smooth-talking smartass who epitomizes the word hipster. Ophelia, the drug-dealing-duo's shared girlfriend, is the first of their two prized possessions. To O, "Chon is earth; Ben is spirit." "Chon fucks; Ben makes love."

The other equivalent that the two bros share is their love for weed, as they are perpetually ambitious and profitable drug dealers living over-glorified, materialistic lives. At last! Oliver Stone goes after corporate greed in a much grimier, certainly more grassroots manner than he did in his remake of "WALL STREET" a few years back. Finally, he attacks more than just the 1% and goes after the glamorized capitalistic way of life as it applies to regular individuals without high-level jobs. With "SAVAGES," Stone uses the never-changing fake vision of the American dream to dramatically display the tangible benefits and harrowing detriments of marijuana prohibition - and drug prohibition altogether - with pure savagery and utter gore, while having quite a boatload of fun at the same time.

Even though we're all aware that Stone thinks drugs should be legalized without a shadow of a doubt, "SAVAGES" shouldn't be mistaken for a message movie - because it's so fun. It's incessantly violent and lustfully stimulating, going to dark places you don't often see in big-budget cinema, and it doesn't ever hold back or even cross the invisible but often crossed "this is too ridiculous" line. You understand why the boyfriends/girlfriend combo does what they do. Hell, dope is like a rational response to insanity for the tripod of love. O (Ophelia, played lustfully by Blake Lively) brings a constant euphoria to Ben and Chon's life with her sensual debauchery that is only absent when the trio isn't filling their lungs with the high-grade 33% THC medical cannabis.

But we all know that high-grade cannabis doesn't get traded around without being noticed by the bad guys. Eventually, Ben and Chon are presented with an offer from a drug cartel lead by Elena Sanchez and physically enforced by Benicio Del Toro's rambunctious Lado character. Clearly, Del Toro drew an abundance of influence from some of the most violent roles played by Warren Oates in the 1970's, most notably Bennie from Sam Peckinpah's "BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA." From his facial expressions to his witty catch phrases to his general
posture and physical look, Benicio looked to the right guy for inspiration, as it worked viciously well in enhancing his performance and making "SAVAGES" that much better. Cool and calm while being frantic and wild at the same time, his performance epitomizes everything that should go into an action villain.

Long story short: Ben and Chon turn the offer down and the cartel kidnaps Ophelia, demanding both ransom money and first dibs on their quality herb. This brings about my main issue with the film, something Oliver Stone is surely known for doing whether you realize it or not. "SAVAGES" builds up to a near-audacious climax almost similar to Scorsese's "THE DEPARTED" but, yet again as he seems to do a lot recently, Stone develops a bizarre obsession and falls in love with the main protagonist character - he can't let Ophelia be put in the worst possible situation. O's need to live drives the plot, but this also halts the ever-escalating, cutthroat storyline that you are fending for more to come of the end - even with the already massive amount of endless brutality.

When the viewer wants more savagery from an already gruesome movie, that is usually a good sign, but at the same time you can only take so much of Oliver Stone's ridiculousness. To consider that he went on and used blatant Shakespearean symbolism in naming Lively's character Ophelia with little meaning behind it isn't completely bewildering considering his track record, but it is surely blasphemous to a certain extent. I haven't read Don Winslow's book of the same name which he based the movie off of, but I am sure Winslow had some reasoning in naming that character as he did. Blake Lively, however wonderful of an actress she is and however much she plays the epitome of licentious perfection as Ophelia, has basically no relation to Ophelia from Shakespeare's "Hamlet." She's grungy and lustful, not complicated in the least bit and surely not hard to understand. However, the name Ophelia has this great fake SoCal sense of pretentiousness to it, so in the end it does work very well in regards to the plot and makes Lively's character more goddess-like, as she is adored by Ben and Chon.

Stone drew influence from as many films as he could to visually put "SAVAGES" together. In more ways than one, it resembles "NATURAL BORN KILLERS", surely in terms of the violence but more so with the trippy, multi colored visual pleasures Stone loves to use to describe the state of mind of his characters. Whether they are in a spun daze or in an alarmingly dangerous situation or even somewhere in the middle, it might not always make complete sense but it is certainly audacious filmmaking. Stone even seemed to steal some of the aspects of Trent Reznor's timid scores from "THE SOCIAL NETWORK" and "THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO" to create a nervous atmosphere, and there's arguably nobody better out there to draw that kind of inspiration from than Reznor.

That being said, Stone can never wait more than two seconds before cutting to a new shot, making his films quick to the point where they are almost uncomfortable to watch at times because a stable flow is often absent. This takes depth away from the characters, but not if his films have first-rate actors and actresses as "SAVAGES" does. John Travolta says all the wrong words in the completely right way as a typical D.E.A. agent, and Salma Hayek refers to herself in an almost joking manner as "The Red Queen" playing the mean mannered cartel boss Elena Sanchez. However, Aaron Johnson did not work for me as the flamboyant yet well-mannered hipster Ben - but that is probably the only flaw within the acting, as everybody else was damn good, especially Blake Lively. She's got one hell of an acting career ahead of her.

In the end, Stone may have just read the book by Winslow and thought the story was just really likeable and that a film adaptation would without a doubt be well-received by American audiences. It might be - it's surely his most accessible film in years, and may catch on because of its marijuana-related plot. Benicio Del Toro steals the show, and hopefully following this film Oliver will delve further into stories that better fit his style of filmmaking instead of half-assing the majority of his projects. If you're into violence and voluptuousness, "SAVAGES" is surely for you.


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