Wednesday, 26 September 2012



I have no interest in drugs. I've never taken them, it's highly unlikely I ever will. Call me an idiot, but anything that's illegal, unhealthy, addictive and expensive strikes me as four terrible ideas rolled into one large terrible idea (and then set light to). Frankly I value my absence of a police record, my (debatable) sanity and my just-about-ticking-over bank balance more than the evanescent pleasures of the spliff or the needle. Nor do I know enough about the subject to have any arguable opinion on legalisation - I suspect there's a case for it for certain medical purposes but I've not read anything that's convinced me it should be decriminalised for recreational use; even if it was, I still seriously doubt I'd ever try it. I just don't think I want it. I don't even drink or smoke.

And as far as movies go, I have curious difficulty empathising with movies where the protagonists, the heroes, are either selling the stuff, getting wasted on it themselves, or both. When horrible things are happening to the lovable stoner hero, it's easy to just mutter "well, it's your own fault, loser" and hope he gets spectacularly caught in the DEA and gangster crossfire. Look at something like Pineapple Express, in which Seth Rogen's weed-addled user-dealer constantly confounds audience expectation by not being shot in the back of the head, executed by the cartel for the crime of being a boring, disposable arsehole. Brian De Palma's Scarface gets away with it through the sheer excess, the gloriously tacky decor and fashions and, crucially, the fact that Tony Montana falls in the final reel rather than sailing into the sunset with a wink to the camera. (I have yet to watch a single Cheech And Chong film.)

The heroes of Oliver Stone's Savages are not lovable at all: a pair of Californian pot growers, getting filthy rich off the most potent marijuana strains from seeds smuggled out of Afghanistan: best friends environmentalist Ben (Aaron Johnson) and ex-Navy SEAL Chon (Taylor Kitsch), living in a blissful beachfront menage-a-trois with mutual girlfriend and narrator Ophelia, known as O (Blake Lively). But the evil Mexican drugs cartel, headed by the ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek) and her wonderfully despicable henchman Lado (Benicio Del Toro), want to take over Ben and Chon's lucrative operation, and seize O as hostage to force their compliance - can these two losers get her back and/or bring the Mexicans down?

Curiously, it relies on the same plot devices as Licence To Kill, the Latin America-based Bond movie (which also featured Benicio Del Toro as a drug kingpin's henchman) in which the heroes attempt to bring down the organisation by suggesting the presence of a traitor within their ranks, and also steal a substantial amount of the villains' money to use against them. And it also depends on Elena suddenly switching from hardass drugs boss to emotionally vulnerable human being, which didn't really ring true. But it's hard to care one way or another who lives or dies, who's double-crossing who, whether the corrupt DEA agent (John Travolta, having fun) is as morally bankrupt as the Mexicans, or indeed as Ben and Chon. None of these characters can possibly have been so naive regarding the dangers of the business they've chosen to make their millions: they knew the risks so there's little sympathy for the dumbass idiots when the bullets start flying.

With no one to root for, it's down to the filmmaking and actually Savages isn't bad: it looks pretty great and it's Oliver Stone's best for some time, his first genre movie since U-Turn back in 1997. Certainly it's better than the surprisingly muted biopic W and the (quite rightly) restrained World Trade Center, and the unqualified mess of Alexander. (Disclaimer: I rather enjoyed Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.) I've usually enjoyed his films, particularly his more shouty and hysterical ones: JFK is a long-standing personal favourite which is like having random facts bellowed at you for three solid hours; Nixon is a sorely underrated film, and Any Given Sunday is probably the only movie ever made to get me even slightly interested in the world of American football. Savages isn't up there with his best, it's too long (at 131 minutes it's one of his shorter ones but it feels long) and it pulls a very dubious trick with the climax, suddenly winding back half a reel with the voiceover "this is how I expected it to end, but this is what REALLY happened..." and switching to a frankly less effective ending that I liked a lot less. Still, it's some return to form, Travolta and Del Toro are always good value, and it's a little sad to see it being all but dropped from the circuits after only a week.


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