The West

Movie Review: Savages
Blake Lively and Benicio Del Toro in Savages. Picture: Universal.

Over the past decade, the Oliver Stone who challenged our sensibilities, the anti- establishment slugger who never shirked from delivering the knockout punch, seemed to have thrown in the towel.

He made Alexander, a sword-and-sandal epic that was as gaudy and sluggish as anything made in the 1950s; his 9/11 drama World Trade Center was unexciting; and even the George Bush satire W. and his Wall Street sequel lacked the edge you might have expected from the director of Born on the Fourth of July and JFK or the writer of Midnight Express and Scarface.

So it's pleasing that the 66-year-old Stone of old makes a comeback in Savages, an outrageously over-the-top crime-and-action flick about two Southern California marijuana growers who tangle with a vicious Mexican cartel anxious to get their paws on the pot.

Mobilising the same dizzying array of film formats he used in JFK, Stone reminds us he can be one of the great visual directors. The razzle-dazzle is not as purposeful as in JFK but the tidal wave of sounds and images is a treat for those who love cinema.

However, as Savages rolls into its third hour, as the tit-for-tat violence between the young Americans and the Mexicans (headed by a wonderfully vampy Salma Hayek), it both drains your tolerance for sleazy characters and violence and makes you wonder why a major director is beefing up what is essentially B-grade material.

But if you have a taste for highly polished pulp Savages won't fail to entertain. At its heart is a sexy trio playing out a Jules and Jim-style menage a trois (Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson and Blake Lively) in stunning beachside locales, with an array of fine actors (John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro) gleefully impersonating a pungent rogues gallery.

The best part of Savages is its opening where Stone and his ace cinematographer Dan Mindel give a dreamy quality to the idyllic lifestyle enjoyed by Ben (Johnson) and Chon (Kitsch), cultivating a marijuana crop and sharing a blonde bombshell named Ophelia (Lively) as readily as a joint.

Such is the quality of their dope that a drug cartel on the other side of the border, headed up by Hayek's dragon-lady Elena, calls Ben and Chon in for a sit down. But the boys back away from the deal, leading to their mutual girlfriend being kidnapped and used as a bargaining chip.

Travolta, Del Toro and Hayek bring a knowing self-mockery somewhat lacking in the rather bland central trio, with the Pulp Fiction comeback kid revealing he still wears these morally duplicitous lowlife roles like a glove.

And Hayek almost manages to make us feel for her, not as queen of the cartel but as a mother, who while holding a young woman hostage is worried about the well-being of her own daughter. We know Stone can spray the screen with blood along with the best of them. But where's the guy who can tell us something about the America that, in the past, he's done so much to reveal and rile?

The West Australian

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