Soft-boiled casting kills hard-boiled crime drama

Dienstag, Juli 3, 2012 | by: Mat DeKinder


"Savages" has a girl problem. This is not to say that the stylish, violent, ensemble thriller from Oliver Stone has trouble picking up chicks at bars, but what it does mean is that it can't overcome the leggy, blonde fatal-flaw that the entire film centers around.

The girl in question is O (short for Ophelia), played by Blake Lively. I've got no real beef with Lively, who has parlayed a starring role on the soapy TV show "Gossip Girl" into passable turns in "The Town" and "The Green Lantern."

I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and blame her shortcomings in "Savages" on her character, but she better watch out because she's quickly gaining on Kristen Stewart for the title of Surefire Movie Killer.

O is the bland, amicably shared girlfriend of best-buds and modestly-successful drug dealers Chon (Taylor Kitch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson). Chon is a nervy Iraq war vet who provides the muscle behind the operation while Ben, the peace-loving botanist, ensures their marijuana is of the highest grade.

Complications ensue when a bloodthirsty Mexican cartel makes an offer to take over the boys' business. They politely decline, but the cartel kidnaps O and forces her boyfriends into indentured servitude.

"Savages" wants us to believe that O is such a rare and beautiful creature that her captivity motivates the actions of everyone on screen and her rescue sends Chon and Ben to some very dark places.

My problem with placing her on such a pedestal is that her character is so underdeveloped that all we really know about her is that she likes to shop, smoke pot and complain about the emotional absence of her wealthy, globe-trotting, husband-collecting mother.

No offence guys, but is she really worth all this trouble? Literally thousands of O's are patrolling the malls of Orange County at this very moment.

In the instances I was able to get past my hang-ups with this character (something Stone makes even harder by having her narrate the whole thing) "Savages" does play out as an effective, admittedly shallow, crime thriller.

Stone has reined himself in over the past few years, but he probably plays it a little too safe here. To his credit, he keeps the action brisk, gives his actors some quality character moments and delivers something much more visually interesting than the genre typically offers up.

The ensemble does some fine work, especially Salma Hayek who gives one of the most nuanced performances of her career as Elena, the leader of the cartel. Unfortunately, while sometimes casting against type works, the move flops here as it's almost impossible to buy Hayek as a ruthless, hardened gang leader.

Fortunately Benicio Del Toro is there to pick up the slack as Elena's strong man, Lado. Del Toro is downright scary, and even while he's pausing to chew a little scenery, I have no problem believing in him as a ruthless thug.

John Travolta shows up and turns in a typically quality performance as the double-dealing DEA agent who seems to be working for everybody. After watching Del Toro and Travolta share a scene, I kind of wished we could just ditch this movie and follow these two on a road trip or have them open a detective agency together.

Kitch has had a rough 2012 with the dueling flops of "John Carter" and "Battleship" to his credit. He does a decent job here, but probably not enough to save him from exile to the Hollywood wilderness.

The person to emerge from "Savages" in the best shape might be Johnson, who after starring in "Kick-Ass" climbs another rung in what is shaping up to be a promising career.

As much as I would love to blame everything on Lively, "Savages" just doesn't really have all that much to say. It's not a terrible movie, but it's not a particularly memorable one either.

"Savages" is rated R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout.

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