SAVAGES: Watch It At Home – Great Book, OK Movie
Don Winslow’s novel SAVAGES is one of the extraordinary reads of recent years. The plot may sound unremarkable–a mini-war is waged between a couple of Orange County drug dealers and a Mexican cartel–but the words “gripping” and “page-turning” don’t do justice to Winslow’s prose, which seems to self-immolate off the page as it’s being read. The novel is a completely original, seamless mix of action thriller, stand-up comedy, historical digression, relentless violence, puns, pop culture riffs, satire, blank verse, and flip treatises on such subjects as the war in the Middle East, the scientific basis for truly great marijuana, capitalism and the meaning of life. Bringing in Oliver Stone to try and translate such a work to the screen wasn’t the worst idea in the world… the problem was that the Stone the movie needed was Crazy Oliver, the guy who made movies–good and bad–like The Doors, JFK, Nixon, U-Turn and especially 1994′s Natural Born Killers, still one of the most daring movies released by any major Hollywood studio in the past quarter-century.
That Oliver hasn’t been around in quite a while. In the past decade, Stone has given us stately, serious films like Alexander, World Trade Center, W and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Maybe, at the age of 65, he’s just too rich (he’s Hollywood’s favorite leftist) and too comfortable to be that firebrand anymore. In any case, aside from playing around with different grades of film stock at the beginning and end (a gimmick almost fuddy-duddyish at this point), his Savages is for the most part a conventional, straightforward action picture. This isn’t just disappointing for fans of the book, it’s pretty nearly fatal to the movie, because it’s the absent authorial voice as much as the characters or plot that make the novel what it is.
With a glaring exception, the book and movie (the script is by Stone, Winslow and Shane Salerno) tell more or less the same story. Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), friends since childhood, grow and sell the best pot in Orange County, which has bought them a spectacular seaside house, and paid for Ben’s international charitable urges. Ben is the botanist and businessman; Chon, an Iraq war veteran, is the muscle. Apart from the house and the business, they share O (Blake Lively), who’s spoiled and beautiful and smart, and in love with both of them. Eventually their success is noticed by the Tijuana drug cartel, headed by Elena (Salma Hayek). She sends her local henchmen Lado (Benicio del Toro) and Alex (Demian Bichir) to absorb Ben and Chon into the organization, but the guys are independents, and they’d rather give up their business altogether than become corporate. In order to convince them otherwise, Elena has Lado kidnap O, and that’s when things start escalating quickly. as assaults by both sides, and multiple double crosses–also involving corrupt DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta)–begin piling up.
Telling the story in a linear way unfortunately emphasizes how basically familiar it is, a fact obscured by the fantastic brio with which it’s told in the novel. It also slows down the pace substantially, and even with a 131 minute running time, Savages has to minimize or eliminate most of the characters’ backstories, which makes them seem thin and hackneyed. Ironically, the closest the movie comes to the tone of the book is at the end, which completely changes the ending of the novel (this won’t come as a huge shock to readers, although it’s yet more proof that Stone’s Natural Born Killers days are behind him) in what attempts to be a clever, postmodern way–but since the rest of the movie hasn’t been made in that style, the trick falls completely flat and feels like a cheat.
The casting of the 3 leads isn’t ideal. Taylor Kitsch is certainly on more comfortable ground in a role like this than he was standing against green screens in John Carter and Battleship, but he lacks the dead-on menace and sardonic humor Chon needs –you could easily imagine Kitsch playing Ben instead, and that’s the wrong way to feel. Johnson’s Ben, meanwhile, doesn’t come into focus until late in the story, when Ben starts to transform, and by then it’s too late. Lively’s performance isn’t much more than a mix of her work on Gossip Girl (when sober) and in The Town (when drugged out), and it was a bad idea to give her some of the book’s narration to read as voice-over in her mostly uninflected tone. The veteran supporting cast fares better, especially Hayek and Travolta. Del Toro is certainly menacing enough as Lado, but his is the character most hurt by losing the better part of his motivations on the way to the screen.
Stone’s films used to be technically superb, but Dan Mindel’s photography here (he’s worked often with Tony Scott and JJ Abrams) is professional rather than distinguished, and Adam Peters’ score is worse–the use of classical-sounding music as background for bloody violence is as big a musical cliche as there is. The editing by Joe Hutshing, Stuart Levi and Alex Marquez never gives the film the pace it needs.
Who could have done justice to Savages on screen? Tarantino, perhaps–his films were probably an influence on the novel in the first place, and he’s a master at heaving together clashing tones, styles and devices to create a unified whole. In a very different way, it would have been interesting to see what Steven Soderbergh could have done with it, or the Coens. Oliver Stone’s version isn’t terrible as 2 hours of ordinary Hollywood action go, but it’s a sad waste of remarkable material.