The Empty Balcony: Savages

Taylor Kitsch just had a bad year. He starred in three major release films. How can that possibly be bad? The three films were Battleship, John Carter, and Oliver Stone’s latest ham-fisted effort, Savages. Three films, three disappointments, and Mr. Kitsch has suddenly moved into Ryan Reynolds territory as the latest bankable star that turned out to be not so bankable. It isn’t all his fault, though. John Carter was doomed from the start, and Battleship was so awful, a cavalcade of thespians from the Royal Shakespeare Company couldn’t have saved it.

Which leads us to Savages.

Occasionally Oliver Stone gets an itch to make an over-the-top movie full of extreme violence and outrageous criminality. When that has happened in the past, he gave us Natural Born Killers and the screenplay to Scarface. This year it was Savages, adapted from the novel by Don Winslow, which tells the tale of a California airhead and the two drug dealers who love her.

The airhead is O, short for Ophelia, played by Blake Lively. She’s the live-in love interest of best friends Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Kitsch), two Laguna Beach roustabouts who happen to be the sole producers of the finest cannabis in the world, if one were to believe the narration. There’s no love triangle here — it’s polyamourous. O claims the three are equally in love with one another, and there’s no tension at all. So, the set up to the film is that three people can live together as essentially husband, wife, and husband, and that creates no problems, and that the dynamic duo of SoCal brah-dom in Ben and Chon can run a criminal empire whose employees seem to spend all their time surfing and pedaling bicycles. It’s as if the whole premise of the movie is: what if potheads...sold pot, and not just, like, ounces and quarters, man. I mean, what if the potheads ran the whole show? You know they’d sell nothing but real dank, man. No schwag. Yeah, that would be awesome.

Truth be told, it’s a ridiculous idea, but an interesting one. It would make for a good story to see a couple of regular users break bad and become everything they hate about the drug business. Too bad AMC is doing a similar story better. To add a little more believability to the tale, and close a plot hole here and there, Ben has degrees in botany and business from Berkeley, and Chon is a former SEAL(!) who pulled tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not too long after the film opens, and a viewer is forced to listen to O’s narration, Chon and Ben receive a violent video from a Mexican cartel, a combination threat and business proposal. The cartel, led by Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek), is impressed with the duo’s product, and would like to form a partnership. To incentivize the partnership, the cartel kidnaps O and holds her hostage to Ben and Chon approving the deal. The two don’t take the news so well, and begin a secret war against the cartel in hopes of rescuing O.

By the time the war starts, the viewer has already been subjected to much gratuitous violence. I would like to think that Stone was commenting on the reality of the violence associated with Mexican cartels and the drug business in general, but that would require treating the subject with some seriousness. The graphic nature of the violence in Savages is more in line with a film like Saw than Saving Private Ryan. The violence in the former is meant to entertain, while the violence in the latter is meant to portray in a more realistic fashion the horrors of war.

In between all the shootings, beheadings, whippings and necklacing, the story tries to fill the gaps, but it just doesn’t sustain believability.

Johnson and Kitsch, for all the hard work they put in for this film, were handed characters that made no sense. In this cartoon of a film their characters were two-dimensional. There just wasn’t much to work with. As for Lively, anyone who has seen The Town knows she can act, and she does a fine job here. But her character lives in such a manufactured reality that a viewer can be excused for hating her. It’s not Lively, it’s O. She made me wish for an unhappy ending. Salma Hayek was very good as Elena, while Benicio del Toro as Lado, the enforcer for the cartel, seemed to be a caricature of himself. John Travolta appears as a corrupt DEA agent, but other than being necessary for a convoluted ending, I see little purpose for his character existing at all.

As for Kitsch’s bad year? The only advice or solace I can offer is this. Keep on acting in bad films. I hear those things pay for very big houses in Malibu.