Oliver Stone returns to his darker side with “Savages” – a crime thriller about a drug war in California between two entrepreneurs and a Mexican drug cartel.
It’s nice to see Stone tackle subject matter that reminded me of perhaps his best film to date, “Natural Born Killers” (which, for me, is better than his Oscar-winning “Platoon”).
But for a film called “Savages,” the edginess feels a little jaded. The film has a lot of nice pieces but doesn’t quite work as a complete picture.
Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch play Ben and Chon, two California friends who have built a small empire selling marijuana. Their business is threatened when Mexican drug kingpin Elena (Salma Hayek) looks to expand and approaches the guys with an offer to help with their distribution.
When they refuse, Elena sends her henchman Lado (Benecio Del Toro) to force them into the partnership by kidnapping their shared girlfriend O (Blake Lively).
Chon and Ben don’t take the kidnapping lightly, hatching a plan for revenge that will allow them to save O and break free from the business forever.
Stone has a good eye for capturing the seedy criminal underbelly, and that eye is essential in a film such as “Savages.” All the main characters, which also include John Travolta as a corrupt DEA agent, are morally bankrupt and determined to do whatever it takes to stay ahead.
That trait proves to be both the strength and weakness of “Savages.” It makes for a film that is fascinating to watch for the most part, and never dull, but without anyone for whom the audience can have a real rooting interest. That’s not a knock on the cast, who are all pretty good – with Travolta and Hayek standing out – it’s more a criticism of the material that is mostly style and ultimately very little substance.
It also doesn’t help that the ending is a big letdown, an ending that feels like the product of poor testing that led to a reshoot.
That ending left a sour taste for me, taking “Savages” from being a passable bit of pulp fiction to a crime thriller where the payoff falls short of expectations.
DVD dandy of the week
This week’s dandy is “Friends With Kids” (B-), Jennifer Westfeldt’s long-awaited (at least for me) follow-up to her 2002 indie darling “Kissing Jessica Stein” – a film she wrote, directed and starred in.
“Kids” isn’t quite on the same level as her debut film, but it’s still sharp enough to appreciate, with Westfeldt and Adam Scott anchoring a really good cast.
Scott and Westfeldt play Jason and Julie, two New Yorkers who find themselves as the only ones among their circle of friends who have yet to settle down and start a family.
Both are eager to be a parent but aren’t ready to settle down, so they decide to have a child together – a parental partnership in which they’d keep their relationship platonic.
Of course, this is the type of film where that arrangement doesn’t exactly work, with both people discovering that they really want to be more than friends. It’s a predictable romantic comedy formula that does get a little shaky in the final act, but it works here thanks to Scott and Westfeldt. They have really good chemistry together – a couple you can actually see being together, even if they can’t.
Westfeldt’s screenplay also wisely expands beyond Jason and Julie, with moments involving married friends (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd and Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig) delivering some pointed observations about relationships. A dinner scene where Hamm brings out all the warts in his marriage is pretty compelling, while it is nice to see Wiig dialed down a little bit.
“Friends With Kids” also deserves credit for finding a way to make Megan Fox interesting, playing a love interest that complicates Jason and Julie’s relationship.
I’ll admit “Friends With Kids” is a little uneven, especially the final act, but there was enough positives to leave me satisfied.
“Friends With Kids” is rated R for sexual content and language and will be available on DVD on Tuesday.