It’s not often you hear a large audience at a public theater groan in unison at a movie, but that’s exactly what happened at a preview screening of Oliver Stone’s Savages in New Orleans this week. The director’s infraction was more a matter of poor judgment than bad filmmaking. A key scene depicts a shootout much as it occurs in the Don Winslow crime novel on which the movie is based. Then, without warning, Stone rewinds the scene and presents it again with an entirely different outcome. With the right set-up in a particular kind of movie, this tactic might have enhanced the film while seeming every bit as clever and interesting as Stone hoped it would be. In the stylish but largely empty Savages, it becomes a pointless and groan-worthy audience betrayal.
Savages was intended as a return to glory for the wayward Stone, whose popularity and cultural impact peaked about 20 years ago with movies like Platoon, JFK and Natural Born Killers. Winslow’s best-selling book certainly represents the kind of ultra-violent and sexually frank material the director likes to transform into socio-political commentary. But this tale of “good-guy” California pot dealers struggling to fend off a “bad guy” Mexican drug cartel never achieves the hip-and-edgy status it seeks. A steamy love triangle among the California dealers (Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) comes off more creepy than hot, and it’s hard to care much about them as they’re pushed into vicious cartel-style behavior.
The bad guys actually have far more appeal. By the end of the film, Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro (Traffic) positively dismantles all stereotypes of the Mexican gangster with a performance that’s as funny as it is frightening. It’s not enough to save the movie, but it may be worth the price of admission.
Savages opens today at the AMC Clearview, Elmwood and West Bank Theaters.