x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Oliver Stone misses the message in Savages

Weak casting and sloppy dialogue make for a wasted opportunity for the usually heavy-handed director to comment on the drug trade.

Savages is the story of two California dope dealers who get in over their heads with a Mexican drug cartel. CourtesyUniversal Pictures
Savages is the story of two California dope dealers who get in over their heads with a Mexican drug cartel. CourtesyUniversal Pictures

Savages
Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, Blake Lively, John Travolta
**

Given his vocal disdain for America's foreign and domestic agendas since the Second World War, Oliver Stone does not enter the narco cartel wars debate with the confidence one might expect.

Although typically loud, brash and flat-footed, the Oscar-winning filmmaker oddly opts for hokey romance over stinging critique. Steering relatively clear of the brutal, violent gangland that lies just minutes south of that infamous border, the Mexico in Savages - largely glimpsed on computer screen - feels too removed to be real.

There is a point to Stone's logic. The Vietnam veteran, who so brilliantly seared that war's harsh realities into the public consciousness via Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, claims to be drawing a clear line between US-generated conflicts overseas and the new levels of brutality they inspire. In addition, the Mexican cartels now play out the horrific nature of their crimes online for all to see, leaving them unanswerable to anyone. Yet with US and British banks now being named and shamed for funnelling cartel funds, some are clearly keen for this to continue unaffected.

With such weighty issues to hand, this colourful but clumsy stab at adapting Don Winslow's novel buckles as it struggles to find its tone. The two California dope-growing dealers - a gung-ho ex-marine (Taylor Kitsch) and his eco-minded offsider (a miscast Aaron Johnson) - are more consumed by a shared girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), than they are by the cartel's unwelcome demands to share or be squashed. O's capture by the cartel's old-fashioned don, Elena (Salma Hayek), does wake them up, but it doesn't shake the uneasy feeling that what resembles a telemovie should, in fact, be passing comment. This is an Oliver Stone picture, after all.

More convincing, to a point, are Benicio del Toro as Elena's insipid right-hand man, Lado, and John Travolta (sans hair piece) as the corrupt DEA figure batting for both camps - but even they can only go so far.

Blake Lively's misplaced voice-over only serves to make matters worse, with Stone's intended point instantly lost in a frothy haze of forgettable dialogue. It's a wasted opportunity from a once-great filmmaker who appears to have briefly dropped the ball again.