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Friday, July 6, 2012

Hollywood Product: 'Savages'

DIO DE LOS MUERTES: Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson in Savages
GENRE: Ultraviolent, ultra-stylish crime drama

THE PITCH: Elena, the head of a Mexican drug cartel (Salma Hayek) kidnaps Ophelia (Blake Lively), the shared girlfriend of botany genius Ben (Aaron Johnson) and hard-boiled war vet Chon (Taylor Kitsch) in a bid to seize control of Ben and Chon’s boutique California marijuana business.

MONEY SHOTS: Bong hits signal the beginning of a languorous ménage a trois between Ben, Chon and Ophelia (who prefers to go by "O"). Hayek’s lipstick-emblazoned mouth fills the screen when she issues sinister orders. Ben and Chon rob a desert cash-drop as part of an undeclared war against the cartel. When a woman spits in his face of brutal enforcer Lado (a swaggering Benecio del Toro), he calmly wipes the saliva with his finger, licks it and uses her hair to dry his face.

BEST LINE: Elena observes to O. that the only way her relationship with Ben and Chon can work is “if they love each other more than they love you.”

BEST BAD LINE: “He’s always trying to fuck the war out of his himself. I have orgasms. He has wargasms,” O. says in voice-over while having sex with Chon. Lively’s sunbaked delivery can’t sell the sleazy attitude in Savages’ dialogue.

BEST SUBTITLE: “Don’t forget whose tits you sucked, you idiot!” Hayek barks in Spanish at Lado and her slick lawyer (Oscar nominee Demián Bichir).

FLESH FACTOR: Ben and Chon have sex with O. individually, but in Johnson and Kitsch reveal far more skin than Lively, diminishing the film’s cheap thrills. At one point Elena interrupts her college-age daughter in flagrante with a phone call. Lado canoodles with an anonymous topless chick in the film's only moment of female nudity.

BODY COUNT: A couple of dozen. One of first scenes features about a half-dozen severed heads (as well as a handful of headless bodies), giving a taste of the gore in store. The harsh interrogation of a suspected traitor includes a bullwhip, a fire and an eye dangling from its socket. At least two gunshots blow out the backs of bad guys’ heads.

FASHION STATEMENT
: Hayek spends much of the movie in a Bettie Page wig and, at one point, a gaucho outfit. Ben and Chon’s Laguna Beach pot growers favor Hawaiian shirts, while their young money launderer (Emile Hirsch) dresses like a bike messenger. A rival druglord named El Azul favors blue boots.

SOUNDTRACK HIGHLIGHTS: Bruce Lash’s bossa nova-style cover of “Psycho Killer” sounds like a Leonard Cohen track. Yuna’s chirpy “Here Comes the Sun” sounds too bright for the film’s subject matter.

POLITICAL SUBTEXT: Oliver Stone tables his usual political agenda, although Ben’s ambition to invest in “clean, renewable energy” calls back to the green businesses championed by Shia LaBeouf in Wall Street: MoneyNever Sleeps. John Travolta’s crooked Federal agent symbolizes the way drug money subverts the legal process, while the rest of the film shows greed beget violence.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY: Apparently Uma Thurman filmed scenes as O.’s frivolous mother, but they didn’t make the final cut, thus denying a Pulp Fiction reunion of Thurman and Travolta.

BETTER THAN THE BOOK?: Dios mio, no. Don Winslow penned a terse, brutally entertaining novel, like James Ellroy taking a whack at “Breaking Bad.” Winslow co-wrote script, but Stone and most of his cast never match the book’s urgency. The corrupt Fed has a significantly expanded role, probably to ensure Travolta’s participation, but to the film’s detriment. The book’s rough ending proves far more satisfying.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Johnson and Kitsch make a charismatic, mismatched duo and Hayek bring plenty of campy energy as their nemesis. Unfortunately Travolta comes across like a coked-up uncle while Lively never seems like a California sex goddess worth fighting a drug war over. After the cartel grabs O., Savages finds its footing as a compelling crime flick, but Stone pulls too many punches for the film to be a real head-rush.

Savages. 2 stars. Directed by Oliver Stone. Stars Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch. Rated R. Opens Fri., July 6. At area theaters.

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