Sunday, July 8, 2012

Movie Review: Savages

Gators are pretty savage.
But so is Benicio Del Toro.
I don’t usually review movies here, but since I read the book the movie is based on, I’m gonna go for it.  

Oliver Stone’s movie is based on Don Winslow’s book.  The book is about Ben and Chon, two twenty-something friends who grow the best pot in the world and run their empire from a SoCal beach house.  They share a girlfriend, named Ophelia (“O” for short), who is a stoned beach bunny/trust fund girl.  When a Mexican drug cartel wants in on Ben and Chon’s operation, Ben and Chon refuse.  To help them reconsider, the cartel kidnaps O.  Instead of knuckling under, Ben and Chon decide to take action and get her back.  The book follows the dangerous and disastrous consequences of that decision. 

Winslow’s style is fast-paced, humorous, and gritty.  The book has the best first chapter in the history of literature.  (I’m not kidding.  Pick it up and read just the first page.  It’s a fast read, I promise.)  The storytelling is accomplished through straight narration as well as script dialogue, complete with stage directions.  The breezy style keeps things moving, and as the reader, I turned pages quickly to find out what happened next.  This isn’t to say the book didn’t have serious problems.  It does.  And those same problems nearly sink the movie. 

First, a bit about the movie.  It follows the book pretty closely, for the most part, which is likely due to Winslow having a screenwriting credit.  Ben is played by Aaron Johnson (I have no idea who this person is), Chon is played by Taylor Kitsch (I have no idea who this person is, either), and O is played by Blake Lively (I am an avid Gossip Girl fan, so at least I know who she is).  The head of the Mexican cartel is Elena “La Reina,” played by Salma Hayek.  Elena’s right hand hit man, Lado, is played by Benicio Del ToroJohn Travolta lends a hand as a corrupt government agent who plays both sides.  With a cast like this, you should immediately notice two things:  the main characters do not have one-tenth of the acting chops of the supporting cast.  I am not sure if this was done on purpose or it just happened that way.  It mirrors a serious problem in the book, however.

Problem the First:  None of the three main characters are interesting, unique, or likable. 

In the book, Ben is a wimp.  He’s smart enough to grow the world’s best pot using his UC Berkeley education, but he’s not smart enough to hand over his operation to the cartel, cash out, and enjoy a work-free life for the next sixty years.  The cartel beheads people with axes and knives and chainsaws and whatever other garden tools they can find.  A sheltered California beach bum isn’t smart enough to cut and run at the sight of this?  Are you kidding me?  There better be some pretty good motivation behind his decision.  And guess what?  There isn’t.  This guy makes no sense.  He shows no spine and no development.   

Chon is also a pretty flat, undeveloped character.  He is an emotionally scarred war veteran after several tours in the Middle East.  This, at least, is a reason for his strong, silent characterization.  He likes beating people up, doing it with Ophelia, getting high, and not much else.  This will never change.  He never changes throughout the course of the book or the movie.  At least he has a good reason. 

Ophelia is one of the lamest, most annoying female characters I’ve read in years.  She does absolutely nothing and adds absolutely nothing.  She is vacant and empty.  There is no personality there.  I think we’re supposed to feel sorry for her because she is somewhat the product of a shitty childhood—rich mother, several stepfathers, no one to care about her having sex too young or smoking pot since the 8th grade.  Boo hoo.  Even so, she has no goals or ambition.  She goes shopping.  That’s it.  I have no idea why either Ben or Chon actually likes having her around, other than the fact that she lets both of them do it with her at the same time.  (There’s a gross three-way scene in the book that is begun but mercifully cut short in the movie.)         

All of these flaws are replicated in the movie.  Ben is flat, lame, and uninteresting.  Chon is flat, but moderately interesting since he knows how to blow shit up.  Ophelia is a black hole, a swirling vortex of nothing that still seems to suck in everything around her, including Oliver Stone.  Stone chose to make Ophelia the narrator of the movie, and seems obsessed with Blake Lively.  There are tons of close-ups of her eyes, her skin, her teeth, her fake butterfly tattoos.  She’s beautiful, yes.  She fits the role incredibly well, which may or may not be a compliment.  Is telling someone they’re a perfect zombie a compliment?  The voice-over narration is dull and dead-eyed and the movie would have been better without it.  Still, Lively wasn’t given anything to work with, so I can’t really say she did a bad job.  She did a great job, but zero times zero is still zero.

Problem the Second:  The supporting cast steals the show.

Maybe this isn’t actually a problem, since the moviegoer is sitting in her seat thinking, Thank goodness someone here is doing their job.

The guy who plays Ben is flat.  Stone substitutes close-ups of his pale, pretty eyes for acting.  When things 
get intense, he goes blank.  The guy who plays Chon is marginally better, thanks to an outburst where he stabs John Travolta in the hand.  He’s going for “still waters run deep,” and he might actually pull it off.  Blake Lively is…well…Blake Lively.  She’s a one-trick pony, and that’s all that’s required here.  I doubt anyone could save this character, so might as well let Lively have it. 

But all anyone really wants to see is Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro.  These two really fuck some shit up, in the best possible way.  Salma Hayek’s Elena is bitchy, controlling, yet vulnerable.  She wears a jet-black blunt-banged wig throughout the movie, symbolizing her need for utter control.  Every hair is always in place, except for the scene when she learns that her beloved daughter has been put in danger.  Then, in a powerful moment, she rips off the wig as she sinks to the floor, sobbing.  Everything you need to know about this character is contained in that moment, in the best possible way. 

Benico Del Toro is creep-master supreme.  I’m not sure if he’s just a creepy guy in real life, but he plays a stone-cold killer like he IS a stone-cold killer.  There’s no hesitation, no regret, no guilt.  He goes for it. Shooting punk-ass lawyers in the kneecaps?  Check.  Shooting henchmen who hesitate to murder helpless women?  Check.  Bullwhipping a traitor’s face until his eyeball comes out?  Check.  Yeah, he’s that kind of hit man.  Now here’s a lesson in acting for the guy who plays Ben.  Benicio del Toro doesn’t need all kinds of facial contortions to express emotion.  His character undergoes fear and anger and happiness, and you’re completely aware of what he’s feeling though a few very small facial gestures and body positioning.  He gets it exactly right, every time, without resorting to Jack Nicholson grins or Tarantino-style theatrics.          

*SPOILER ALERT:  DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE*

Problem the Third:  The super-sappy Hollywood ending the un-does the real ending. 

In the book, everyone dies.  It’s kind of disappointing since you’ve just spent 200 pages trying to muster up the enthusiasm to like them, and then they’re killed.  But it’s also fitting since these aimless losers drifted through life…let them drift into death, too, with the same kind of bored, unthinking abandon.        

In the movie, everyone dies, too.  Oh, wait, but then they don’t.  Ophelia’s drugged-out voiceover tells us that it might not have actually happened that way.  I’m instantly reminded of Clue, where they show you two “maybe” endings and then a real one where everyone committed one of the murders.  The movie backs up a few minutes, to before the death-carnage goes down, and it’s all re-done with the cavalry coming in to save the day, all the bad guys getting punished, and all the good guys living happily ever after.  Are you freaking kidding me?  This gang of losers takes down the Mexican cartel?  And they’re rewarded for their lame aimlessness with a tax-free life in Africa or Indonesia somewhere? 

I don’t know if Universal executives forced Stone to produce a happy ending for their big summer blockbuster, or if someone couldn’t bear to see Blake Lively bite the big one, or if Stone just wanted to give a big middle finger to the audience.  Whatever the reason, it was a stupid move and pretty much destroys any integrity the storyline might have had.  At least when the characters die, we’re presented with a lesson:  Try to get something for nothing, and you will die.  If you don’t care enough about yourself to even try to survive, you will die.  The California consumer lifestyle creates people of such unutterable aimlessness and vapidity that they can only die without producing anything of real value in life. See, death works as the outcome of all these ideas.  What does not work is letting them off scot-free, not a scratch, to live happily ever after.

Oh, well.  You win some, you lose some.  Savages is beautiful to watch, electrifying when the minor characters are on screen, but it has no soul.