“Savages:” Whole Lotta Oliver Stone

When “Scarface” came out 29 years ago, it was not all that warmly received. But after about a half hour, I said to myself, “This is a freight train of entertainment. Who wrote this script?”

Of course, it was written by Oliver Stone, who already had an Oscar for Midnight Express. He went on to direct a series of extraordinarily energetic (i.e., coked out of his mind) middle-brow 1980s films (Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, and Born on the Fourth of July). (Keep in mind that in these idiosyncratic precincts, “middle-brow” and even “1980s films” are terms of praise.) 

Eventually, the press turned on him over JFK (that`s the moment when the term “conspiracy theory” became a conclusive putdown of any unwanted idea). But I started to like him more as his flaws became obvious.  

“Savages” is Stone`s new crime movie about cool young white pot growers battling a luridly evil Mexican cartel that`s attempting to move into their Laguna Beach turf. Think “Scarface” crossed with “Point Break,” the 1991 movie about surfing bank robbers supposedly written and directed by Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), but in which I sense the crowd-pleasing fingerprints of her ex-husband James Cameron. 

“Savages” is, despite Stone`s often embarrassing dialogue—he`s 65, as old as George W. Bush (in fact he was in Bush`s class at Yale before dropping out for Vietnam) and is still trying to sound groovy—a whole lotta movie.

For one thing, it looks great. The outdoor scenes are shot in a style common in the early 1980s before the fashion caught on in the later 1980s that a psychologically “dark” movie had to be visually “dark,” with a typically muted blue-gray palette. Instead, Stone films Laguna Beach like a photographer for National Geographic, in bright sunshine with the sun low in the sky to provide warmth. The idea is simple but effective: exactly how far would you go to be able to afford to live in a place that looks this great?

The two American dope dealers share a blonde girlfriend without jealousy. That`s not exactly realistic male psychology, but the two men don`t seem like actual individuals, but instead embody the two sides of Stone`s personality: the dope is grown by the Jewish hippie who is good with money and the muscle is provided by the gentile hard-ass combat veteran.

Stone`s male characters are, as usual, romanticized, while the female characters are satirized. The funniest character in “Savages” is Salma Hayek`s turn as the “red queen” head of the Baja Cartel. I suspect the origin of this character is in Stone`s 2010 documentary “South of the Border” where he goes around Latin America interviewing leftist Presidentes. As I wrote in 2010:

The best part is when Stone interviews the one female Presidente, the wife of Kirchner of Argentina, who ran his wife in his place when he got term-limited out of office. I can`t recall Stone ever creating an interesting female character, and he seems peeved that Mrs. Kirchner has gotten into the Leftist Leader Boys Club of his dreams on a technicality. So, he asks this rich and spoiled–looking political wife, “How many pairs of shoes do you own?” She immediately recognizes this reference to Imelda Marcos and chews an abashed Stone out for several minutes for his sexist impertinence.

The Salma Hayek character appears to be Stone saying, “Well, okay, Mrs. Kirchner, I couldn`t think of any comebacks when we did our interview … but the auteur laughs last!”

A lot of people don`t like the ending, but if you`ve been as fascinated as long as I have by the question of which federal laws apply on reservations of American Indian nations and which don`t, then John Travolta`s last line in the movie is perfect.