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Caffeinated Clint vs. Oliver Stone’s Savages

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“Get Shorty”, “Broken Arrow”, “Face Off”, “Blow Out”, “Grease”, “Wild Hogs”, “Old Dogs”, “Swordfish”, “The Shaggy Dog”, “The Punisher”, “Be Cool”, “Shout”, “White Man’s Burden”…. yep, John Travolta has finally done it – he’s made a film with a title that doesn’t lend itself too easily to a 140 character tweet gag encompassed of sordid massage innuendo!

“Savages”.

But whipping the towel off the bad jokes for a minute, I gotta say, “Savages” is one of the appreciably more wild rub-downs from Hollywood Travolta’s been given of late. A dollop more coconut oil, and spread more evenly around the groin area, and it might’ve even been a flick to cream over. But he’s – I’m asking for it, aren’t I!? – solid here, it’s near everyone else that lets him down.

A caper involving young drug dealers, crooked law-enforcers and trigger-happy drug kingpins? Now that, combined with “Savages” great cast and one-time terrific director at the helm (tell me “Wall Street”, “Platoon”, “Born on the Fourth of July” and “JFK” aren’t classics!?), could’ve resulted in a cinematic squeal of ecstasy. Unfortunately, everyone involved – sans Travolta and Salma Hayek, playing one of the central villains- seems to be saving their best performance for 2013’s E! Road to the Academy Awards Red Carpet.

What’s likely gone on here is the film’s stout and starry cast – which also includes such usually-reliable thesps as Benicio Del Toro, resulting in a credit block that reads like the bibliography of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopaedia – have been excited to work with him, they’ve followed the lead of their legendary director, Oliver Stone. Usually, that’d be a good movie, but not when the director has decided to shout direction and offer his advice from under a coconut tree, where behind dark tinted glasses he sipped margaritas and was seemingly more engrossed in the EL James novel he had cued up (that likely explains the profusion of awkward sex scenes in “Savages”) on his kindle than with the job at hand.

But credit to Travolta and Hayek for not following the direction of their sleepish, lazy director here, because everyone else’s loyalty and discipline leaves them limping away like a hot chick that’s stepped on broken glass at a beautiful beach. It’ll only hurt them temporarily, but it’ll still leave a small, noticeable gash.

I guess what I’m saying is, “Savages” isn’t a film you’d normally say was piss poor – but by Oliver Stone standards it is.

Based on the book by Don Winslow, “Savages” tells of two highly-successful drug dealers in their twenties (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) who are forced to rescue their ‘shared’ girlfriend ‘O’ (Blake Lively) from the clutches of a competing drug cartel. Salma Hayek plays the kingpin, Benicio Del Toro is her right-hand man, and John Travolta plays the smarmy DEA agent caught embroiled in the mess. And there’s sex in a bath tub. Heads being blown off too.

Guessing “Savages” is Oliver Stone trying to remain current and valid in a marketplace that, let’s be honest, isn’t hungry for the types of movies the outspoken and controversial filmmaker behind ‘let’s silence this guy, quick!” War stories like “Platoon” and news-making political pieces like “JFK” usually serves up. Unfortunately, it shows, with much of “Savages” collapsing under the weight of its own thin structure and faux coolness. If Lewis and Gilbert from ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ wore Ted McGinley masks to a pep rally, they’d likely get away with the masquerade for about half the night. It’s the same with Stone’s film – without a mega-engrossing stratagem to deter punters, it becomes all too apparent that the visuals, dialogue and even the performances are amateur-hour homage’s to those that do it better (be it Tarantino, Soderbergh, or even, dare I say, Barry Sonnenfeld – whose “Get Shorty”, another crime caper starring John Travolta, proved a much more successful film).

In addition, the film seems intent on letting its gratuitous violence and slick-dick characters take center stage over everything else in the film, resulting in something that’s akin to a cool fool from school.

“Don’t worry about giving it too much Mr Kitsch”, Stone says, sipping a Japanese slipper from under the sunset-lit palm, “Blake’s blouse, that beautiful red sky, and the gunfight Benicio and Aaron are about to have will suffice. We’ll make you all look better in post. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a Coke.”

Jokes aside, one can’t blame Stone for trying something different on and trying to be more adaptable. None of his past few films have worked – also because they were pretty poor but mainly – as nobody was much interested in the topics, not when they can get a quicker, succinct history-lesson from Wikipedia on a conspiracy or a crooked president in this day-and-age.

Stone had planned to shoot another of his Preachy war epics (“Pinkville”) as his latest project – the script of which is apparently great – but upon learning the audience for those films have essentially retired to an earlier bedtime and the comfort of TiVo’ed “The Newsroom” eps, the investors fell out. As such, Stone had to answer a “director wanted” ad for a project he wouldn’t normally have touched.. unless under the influence of pink pills (which is the only explanation for why he decided to direct ‘Natural Born Killers’). He needs his own capital. Or a holiday. Or both.

Stone is back in average film territory by no fault of his own; he’s forgotten that he’s capable of making great movies and if half the flicks he’s made over the past decade or so (everything from the one with Robert Downey Jr donning the worst Aussie accent in the history of film) are anything to go by, he’s in no hurry to remember how to make another one. Lazy pays the same, no doubt. He’s lost the passion.

And no offense to the girl but the first indication that Stone didn’t much care how this thing turned out, so long as he got his cheque, was the hiring of Blake Lively as the female lead. She’s way out of her depth here, and Stone – a man renowned for his remarkable casting choices – would’ve known that. Instead of hiring someone with the chops, he’s cast a pretty young TV star in a part that could’ve essentially pushed the movie towards being that something special, if audiences had given a damn or been able to relate to her. Sadly, Lively’s weak turn here doesn’t cut it. Her blouse deserves the cheque, not her.

In addition, Stone apparently cast Taylor Kitsch as one of the male leads after previewing some of her scenes in the effects-driven “Battleship”. Yes, “Battleship”. What the heck!? Kitsch can act, don’t get me wrong, but nobody sitting through Peter Berg’s bloated “Transformers” rip-off is going to realize that, only those who’ve seen his fine work as Tim Riggins on “Friday Night Lights” likely know he’s got talent. Oliver Stone hiring someone based on their turn in “Battleship”? I’m convinced, the guy just didn’t care who was in this thing… nor how quickly it sunk. He wanted to pay off his horseracing debt, and that’s the extent of it.

As fans of the book will attest to, there’s a half decent film trying to wiggle out of “Savages” bruised rectum, but it really needed someone who isn’t still hearing chopper propellers and shots from the grassy noel to yank it out. Stone, it seems, just doesn’t give a shit anymore.

With the messy script and amateurish direction, not even John Travolta at his most solid was going to be able to pull this one off. Oops. My bad.

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About Caffeinated Clint

Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole.

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