In preparation for this film, I went back and watched Brian de Palma’s Scarface (1983) with Al Pacino, a film written by Oliver Stone before he became a two-time Oscar-winning director. Scarface (1983) was un-mercilessly slaughtered by the critics when it opened, yet became a top renter on video and was rediscovered by audiences through the years. Pacino’s over the top performance as Tony Montana is electrifying to watch, as he commands the screen with a confidence he has not had since 1990, and an inner rage that drove him in his early work. The performance works big, because the film is about wretched excess, everything about Tony’s life is going to be big. Tracing the rise of the Cuban immigrant from dish washer to all-powerful drug lord, selling cocaine and making untold millions, the film was a cautionary tale about drugs in the eighties when cocaine was still the drug of choice. Despite the film’s failure, it is now considered a classic and taught in film schools as an example of outstanding direction from this era.
I thought Savages might share some of the qualities as Scarface (1983).
Though not a return to form for Oliver Stone, who did his finest work in the years spanning 1986-1994, Savages is a thoroughly entertaining film (however flawed) that invites the audience in its twisting storyline, with no clear idea as to who actually might be the good guys? We know who the bad guys are, that much is clear, but the other guys seem only less bad than they are, in that they do not wish to do murder to get what they want. The bad guys are the ones who took the heads of their victims off with chainsaws…got it, bad indeed. Still nothing subtle about Mr. Stone, but is that not why we love the man?? He hits you over the head with his imagery and story, as he always has, and after some muted work, it’s good to have him back doing this sort of thing. Let’s start by saying, the not so bad guys, the golden bodied weed dealers from California go about their business and do not bother anyone, but they are still dealers, what they are doing is illegal, thus they are criminals. More in a minute on the story or lack of it.
Can I say I love seeing John Travolta in a role he can really bite into? I have always been a believer in Travolta, even after his initial fall in the dreadful Perfect (1985), which brought unemployment, and then those stupid Look Who’s Talking films. His performances in Saturday Night Fever (1977), Urban Cowboy (1980) and best of all Blow Out (1981) long ago demonstrated an actor of extraordinary abilities, with a penchant for choosing lousy projects. Let’s not forget that the great Pauline Kael once compared Travolta to a young Brando, and she was right on the money. But when he chose bad, he did not mess around, he really blew it. I mean seriously…Stayin’ Alive (1983) directed by Stallone, who made over the actor in his image??? What was Travolta thinking????? As much as anybody I championed his comeback with Pulp Fiction (1994), which he followed with the superb Get Shorty (1995), for which he should have been an Oscar nominee, the ultra cool Face Off (1997), and Primary Colors (1998), where he was a knockout as a Clinton-esque Presidential candidate, cheater and all. In recent years Travolta has not made the best choices, but here as Dennis, the crooked DEA agent, he’s slimy enough to be a villain, but is he really a bad guy?? On the take for sure, but is he taking enough to be considered a bad guy in this world? Whatever he is, Travolta charges the film with an energy the three leads, the sort of good guys do not have.
Selma Hayek does the same thing as the Queen Bee of a Mexican drug cartel which wants in on the what the California threesome are doing. Hayek, portraying a true villain for perhaps the first time in her career, depending on what you consider a villain, is excellent as Elena who wishes to eat up the smaller company and make it her own, and her offer is not ungenerous. Clearly enjoying herself in the role, Hayek cuts loose with an energy that is both playful and yet menacing, giving us a woman we would enjoy to be seduced by, but in a million years would not want to cross.
Our not so bad guys, the California kids, are Taylor Kitsch, still recovering from John Carter (2012), Aaron Johnson and Blake Lively, a good-looking threesome who share the girl as well as the wealth. Yup, I kid you not. O, her name is with both of them sexually, though we never really get close enough to either of them to see if there is a strong emotional attachment for any one of them. Together they run a very profitable marijuana business, safe, they do good work and keep their noses clean. They even do some good with the money to justify perhaps their choice as a career. When Elena makes them offer it also comes with a threat, and eventually, a kidnapping that has a profound impact on the story. To say much more about the plot is to start giving things away and I do not wish to do that. There are times when Stone cannot seem to make up his mind as to what kind of film he is making, but the performances of the villains are strong enough to carry us over any weaknesses. The picture is full of ambushes, double-crossing, lies and betrayals and some gruesomely violent sequences that might have you looking away from the screen. Elena makes it clear very early she is not afraid to lash out, which leaves me surprised the California kids did not take her deal in the first place.
Blake Lively does an OK job here as O, furthering her reputation as an actress who wants to be taken seriously. She was very good for Ben Affleck in The Town (2010) and though the role here does not offer her the chance for real dramatic depth, she certainly has a great deal more than her two partners, Kitsch and Johnson, who look like sunscreen models caught in the headlights.
Travolta and Hayek seem to understand that to make this film work they must have a grand old-time as the villains. They do just that with some help from Benicio Del Toro along the way. Worth seeing for Travolta and Hayek, and though it is heads and shoulders better than Alexander (2004), it would not crack the ten best line up I created a few weeks ago for Stone. NIce to see most everyone having a good time though.