It may not seem like it now, but there was a time when Oliver Stone was among our most important and visionary filmmakers. He made morally challenging and sociologically complex films that could be discussed and dissected infinitely. At the turn of the century, Stone seemed to lose his mojo. As of late, he’s been turning out marginal works such as W. and the Ill-advised sequel Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. His latest offering looks like a return to form, or least to the days just prior to his fall from grace.
Savages tells the story of two marijuana growers in a mutually beneficial partnership with each other. Ben (Aaron Johnson), a dreadlocked white hippie and UC, Berkley graduate, is the brains. Sean (Taylor Kitsch), a former Navy SEAL, is the brawn. When their girlfriend O (Blake Lively) is kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel, Ben and Sean take them to war.
Savages began life as a novel by Don Winslow, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stone and Shane Salerno. Judging by the title, it could easily be an Italian cannibal film from the heyday of exploitation cinema. Come to think of it, Savages would probably be right at home in a 1970’s grindhouse judging by it’s a plot. It’s a revenge film, straight up, no chaser. That kind of simplicity may be just what Stone needs to get himself back on track.
The trailer does make the prospect of Stone tackling such a story tantalizing. The visuals recall the dusty yet trippy tone of Natural Born Killers. The use of Día de los Muertos style imagery further suggest that film takes place in a peyote induced haze. The presence of Benecio Del Toro as one of the bad guys is a welcome addition. Everything is underscored by a reggae remake of James Brown’s immortal “The Big Payback,” which nicely telegraphs what viewers should expect. When the trailer explodes into an orgy of violence in its closing moments, it’s hardly a surprise. That’s just what these kinds of tales are supposed to lead to.
Savages offers Oliver Stone a chance to tackle exactly the kind of film he might’ve deemed as beneath him 20 years ago. It’s the kind of territory that one might expect Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers to tread down. The last time Stone ventured into this no man’s land, the result was an overly self-aware crime film by the name of U-Turn. Savages offers him a shot at much needed redemption. While his recent work might not inspire much confidence, I think he’s earned the benefit of the doubt.