Renn Brown: Even with a handful (or two) of absolute classics to his name, it’s hard to believe anyone has been truly excited about Oliver Stone as a narrative director for a decade or more. Even while taking on topics like a highly politicized national tragedy, a controversial presidency, and the financial crisis, Stone’s efforts have been listless and lacking in passion, if not style. I guess sometimes it takes shallower stuff to get a classic director’s juices flowing, and in the case of Savages it’s meat-and-potatoes thriller stuff like sex, violence, drugs, and computer wizardry that light up the director’s passions. The result is Stone’s best film in ages, and perhaps one of the best action-thrillers in just as long.
Savages is very much Stone playing in the Tony Scott sandbox — working with a script that might typically attract a Jason Statham or Mark Wahlberg — but Stone wisely dials down the intensity of the editing and cheap camera gimmickry for a more precisely stylish thriller. The other dividing line between this and the common B-actioners flooding cinemas these days, is a very real sense of danger; Savages doesn’t just have teeth, it has fangs. When the narration includes a character’s promise that her telling you the story doesn’t mean she’s alive at the end of it, that cheap raising of stakes carries a lot more weight once you’ve seen a dozen people die horribly at the hands of a ruthless cartel.
Nick Nunziata: Tony Scott is a good comparison because this is very much evocative of True Romance and what it lacks in Tarantino whip-crack dialogue it makes up for in Don Winslow aggression. Oliver Stone is one of the most gifted filmmakers we have, a fact which has been lost to time and the volume of his zeal. The guy is a powerhouse. Savages is good for many reasons which we’ll illustrate but perhaps its most precious gift is in allowing for a film to exist where Oliver Stone doesn’t get in his own way. It’s a beautiful film filled with many stylistic nuances but it all serves the narrative. That’s actually a Herculean accomplishment because when stripped of rhetoric the man can flat out shoot film.
There’s not a lot of “new” in Savages but when it’s clicking it’s flat out electric. That’s due to a wide variety of elements but the two most surprising ones come in the form of fantastic performances from Aaron Johnson and Benicio Del Toro.
Renn Brown: Savages is definitely a film filled with fantastic performances, and even more fantastic dynamics that often elevate the spottier performances. Stone does not often lend long stretches of time to one character or another playing out their arc, so instead of seeing Aaron Johnson’s corporatized hippie philanthropist stare in the mirror and struggle with the idea of killing, he’s simply thrust into situation after situation, the audience seeing his turmoil on the fly. There’s a subtle engineering to the way Stone characterizes these people amidst action that actually does a lot of, say, Kitsch’s work for him, and won’t get widely recognized with all the sparkless narration slathered over the film. That said, Kitsch is surely better than he’s been in any of his other films this summer, and that his relationship with Johnson’s character feels so natural is an indication that he’s doing more with the “aggressive one” character than you’d pick out on first glance. Lively is certainly the weak link here and the film would be stronger without her droning exposition and weak poetics (that I must assume are artifacts of the book), but she also operate on such a whispering, bugged-out level that she works as the MacGuffin her character really represents.
Again though, it’s really character interaction that lights up this film, be it between Del Toro and Hayek, Del Toro and Johnson, the two boys and Travolta, Hayek and Lively, or really any other arrangement of characters it can come up with. Like a game of chess in which pieces keeping putting each other into check, Savages wants, needs its characters to bounce off each other so their unique perspectives shine, and it uses everything from secret meetings to Skype to play with every configuration of characters possible.
Nick Nunziata: And bounce they do! Lively is actually a surprise, playing her role not unlike Kate Hudson’s in Almost Famous. She’s not an equal partner, but rather a muse. An empowered groupie. She’s not intended to be deep or all-seeing, which grants the film a little playful latitude. Hers is not a weak performance by any stretch. We’re just used to seeing our narrators and cinematic characters built differently. Though this is very much a True Romance for the aughts, Ophelia is as much a passenger as the audience.
Additionally, John Travolta [figuratively] lets his hair down here in a role that allows him to show a looseness absent from many of his recent roles. Especially in the film’s last act, where things are unraveling in every direction.
Oliver Stone deserves some of the credit as he’s a director who has not only directed some of the best performances in the last four decades but also as someone who balances archetypes and talent as good as anyone this side of Martin Scorsese. Additionally, the script by Stone, Shane Salerno [full disclosure: he wrote many drafts of Meg, the giant shark movie I was instrumental in helping build only to get shat on by New Line in favor of Rush Hour 3, The Last Mimzy, Hairspray, and Inkheart], and Winslow balances meaty action and tough guy antics with surprising emotion. The end result is a very atypical summer movie.
Renn Brown: It’s definitely a refreshing flick, and a reminder of how rare it is to see a toothy, mean crime thriller these days. The violent stuff has all become gore horror or the tongue-in-cheek splatter-fests that Stallone often pulls out, while action-thrillers have become more glossed-up affairs like Taken or even the ultra-classy The Town. Here Stone takes it back to the uglier days when a headshot was meaty, and brutal torture is more than just bruises and a bloody nose. The trail of grue left behind by the cartel’s agents contrasts nicely with their equally deft handle on technology and surveillance, which makes this feel decidedly modern. And while it all seems a little weird that the most infamous cartels are fixated on weed when it is truly coke (and the “insatiable North American nose”) that drives such conflicts these days, there’s still the feeling that the fantasy playing out here is not altogether divorced from reality.
There is the troubling matter of the dual-ending that will definitely rub many the wrong way, (and very vague spoilers will follow) but what’s funny is that the film trading a pseudo-tragic/glory ending for something more widely palatable actually feels like the residue of contemporary Stone. While happy to show us the more gruesome ending from the book, Stone ultimately enjoys reversing things and stabbing his conspiratorial political perspective into things with an ending that is both clumsier and more subtly nihilistic than the alternative.
Nick Nunziata: My favorite part of the entire cartel experience is the absolutely delightful little technical wizardry that accompanies their horrific business. Whether it be the descriptive and adorable sounds their emails make, ringtones, and most importantly the Flash animated death threats, there’s a wicked streak here that helps iron out wrinkles. In fact; the tech aspect of the movie is refreshing. Equal amounts of legwork is done by violence and computer programming. Science and elbow grease. Gunplay and knifeplay. Military strategy and blunt force. Sex and MORE SEX. This is a love note to the early 90’s in both how it embraces excess and turns it on its ear.
Regarding the dual ending, a lot depends on the viewer’s desire for a happy ending. Whereas a film like 25th Hour can exist in blessed ambiguity it’s a lot harder to sneak that past today’s pasteurized audiences. The movie does so much right it’s hard to fault it for its missteps.
It’s a messy, sexy cocktail.
Renn Brown: Savages is definitely Oliver Stone hitting a new sweet spot. And while I’d love for him to continue being a Vital Voice of American Consciousness in Cinema or whatever, the empty platitudes and shallow posturing of his last decade’s work up through Wall Street 2 [review] suggest that role might be beyond him at this point. If he can keep it up with the rich genre efforts though, he can remain a welcome presence on the screen. Savages makes it utterly clear that he can still shoot the shit out of action, sex, violence, and quiet menace with a sense of style that is distinctive and multi-format without it disappearing up its own ass and becoming totally oppressive. He also has a great sense of filmmaking that deliberately beefs up the performances of his younger actors while hanging back and letting his experienced pros do their thing. There’s never a dull moment in Savages, and the sophistication suffers the flaws from beginning to end.
Looking at it as a whole, this is a complex film with a hell of a balancing act required to make it work, and Stone was clearly energized by the challenge. Savages is beautifully ugly, stylishly mean and is surely the best thriller of the year.
Nick Nunziata: It’s engaging, propulsive, entertaining, and not stupid. It has moments which strain goodwill but as an overall effort it continues a trend of excellent slightly retro violent flicks that live in the margins [Drive comes to mind]. It also features mostly great work from a diverse and well-used cast and as the summer starts to wear thin with gigantic effects films this is just what the doctor ordered. If Oliver Stone is evolving into a studio footage gatherer we’re all the better for it.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars