If Oliver Stone were uncharacteristically even-handed and even “fair and balanced” with his Dubya biopic W, mark Savages as the subtlety-be-damned director’s return to the old Ollie we know. Here he is, in post-Natural Born Killers, wannabe Tarantino go mode, taking no prisoners and directing with the old guns a’blazing style. This tale of drug wars and semi-good people getting into super-bad territory is fatally flawed, sure, but also somehow fatally fun, in small doses.
In the tale of good weed gone bad, a young triangle of friendly weed growers — the surfer Buddhist (Taylor Kitsch), his kindly but “baddist” Iraq war vet friend (Aaron Johnson), and the lovely blonde woman (Blake Lively), a lover to both and our friendly voice-over narrator — run up against the vicious side of the business as they get involved in a Mexican cartel seeking to expand its distribution network north of the border. In that world, kidnapping, beheadings, and all manner of meanness are deployed in the course of a day’s work. From that side of the border and spectrum of good and evil, Salma Hayek is the evil queen bee and Benicio Del Toro the kind of gallows-witted guy you don’t want on your bad side: both actors easily trump the competition and steal the scenery. John Travolta, one of several Pulp Fiction echoes, is agreeably toothy as a DEA agent playing all sides.
Hell keeps breaking loose in different directions in the story, which feeds off the buzz of constant tension. To add insult to climactic injury, the film works its way into a violent showdown of a finale, with some misdirected post-modernist artistic knife-twisting involved and references to both Sergio Leone/Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western music/mis en scene and Tarantino’s finalizing finale of Reservoir Dogs. Thing is, Stone has none of the sneaky ironic undertones or genre-gymnastic trickery of Tarantino or Leone (a precursor to the Tarantino touch). On the art-pulp barometer, Stone is too ham-fisted and moralizing to lift the film out of its muck, despite his valiant efforts.
Which is not to dismiss the film, one of the darker fun zones you’ll find in this summer’s movie crop. Savages may achieve Stone’s ambition to create a shameless, pulpy cauldron of nastiness that leaves a nasty aftertaste. We may half-resent the gesture, while another part of our moviegoing appetite appreciates the bitterness, as a refreshing break from Hollywood feel-good sweetness.