SAVAGES (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal and Grisly Violence, some Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Drug Use and Language throughout

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Directed by: Oliver Stone

Written by: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow & Oliver Stone

(based on the novel SAVAGES by Don Winslow)

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro & John Travolta

SAVAGES sounds like it has all the makings of a stellar crime-thriller. Controversial director Oliver Stone is behind the camera and using ingredients of drugs, violence and gangsters all blended into a film that could have and should have been great. In a sad turn of events, SAVAGES is not great. It’s not even good. Instead, this is an utter disappointment that suffers from a mixed bag cast of characters and messy pacing in spite of stylish sensibilities. This is a basic, run-of-the-mill kidnapping thriller.

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Chon and Ben are two dope-dealing best friends who share the same girlfriend, Ophelia. A particularly unique type of marijuana has turned these up-and-coming dealers into wealthy criminals. Ben handles the peaceful business side of things, while Chon takes care of the violence that occasionally arises in their highly illegal line of work. Meanwhile, Ophelia doesn’t do much except for smoking weed, having sex and lying around in the sun. When Ben and Chon are approached by the cartel and a highly questionable business deal goes bad, Ophelia is kidnapped by cartel leader Elena and vicious enforcer Lado. Together, Chon and Ben must use their brains and brawn to take down the crazed cartel and save their mutual girlfriend.

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The cast of characters is a combination of good and bad. Benicio Del Toro is great as Lado, a fearless thug who delights in every single one of his sick actions. John Travolta also gives one of his better performances of the last few years as a crooked DEA agent. Even though he’s a minor character in the grand scheme of things, Travolta adds much-needed talent to this movie. Selma Hayek is only okay as Elena. She is an intimidating villainess at points in the film, but there’s also a forced attempt to flesh out her character as a loving mother struggling to have a relationship with her daughter. At least, Hayek’s cartel leader has far more development than any of the three protagonists. Taylor Kitsch comes off as a bland tough guy and Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays laughably silly hippie. Meanwhile, Blake Lively doesn’t do much save for play a damsel in distress, look pretty and give an irritating voice over throughout the film. The stuff she’s describing is happening right before our eyes too, so there’s really no need for it to begin with.

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Oliver Stone directs SAVAGES with style and a slick look. There are definitely well-executed scenes on display, but they’re bogged down with pacing that drags for too long before arriving at any of the exciting stuff. Since the characters aren’t well-developed to begin with, that leaves us with almost an hour of screen time before Ophelia even gets kidnapped. By the time that happens, one might expect the film to pick up drastically. You would be wrong, because the action scenes and revenge moments are few and far between. There’s an appropriately savage vibe to the violence on display (things get gory and downright brutal) which is a good thing given what this story is about. However, the conclusion is a huge cop-out! This felt like an ending that cheated the viewer in every possible way. The final moments are dishonest and out-of-place.

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SAVAGES might have been a great, rip-roaring thriller if it had the right script and cast behind it. Instead, this comes off like a pretty standard by-the-numbers B-flick that underwhelms. Style, gruesome violence, a few good scenes as well as Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta aren’t enough to save this film from mediocre writing, a really stupid ending, poor characters, and bland performances. SAVAGES is strictly a middle-of-the-road effort.

Grade: C

LONE SURVIVOR (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody War Violence and Pervasive Language

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Directed by: Peter Berg

Written by: Peter Berg

(based on the book LONE SURVIVOR by Marcus Luttrell & Patrick Robinson)

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster & Eric Bana

Based on the failed Operation Red Wings mission, LONE SURVIVOR joins a select group of movies that also includes THE HURT LOCKER and ZERO DARK THIRTY. It’s a war movie, but one set around the more recent military activity in the Middle East. The film is an all-around uplifting story about courage in the face of near-certain death and the will to survive.

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Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Hirsch), and Matthew Axelson (Foster) make up the four Navy SEALs assigned the task of killing terrorist Ahmad Shah. Shah is a known Taliban leader responsible for the deaths of 20 Americans in the space of the previous week. At first, the mission appears to be going well. There are some glitches with the communications equipment, but everything else is going smoothly. The objective is close to completion and things suddenly spiral out of control. A couple of innocent civilians (two children and an elderly man) stumble across the four soldiers. The tough moral decision of either killing the bystanders or letting them go, ends with the soldiers releasing them unharmed. This compromises their location to the Taliban and the band of brothers do everything they can to survive until rescue comes (which may take a long time due to malfunctioning communications).

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The opening of the film showcases cast and crew credits being run over a montage of real footage of Navy SEALs boot camp training. This can be seen as a little cheesy by some, but it immediately displayed the rigorous training these men go through. There is a significant portion of the story that is dedicated to character development and it vastly works in the film’s favor. Everybody is relatable in some way. Even when the tough debate about the important decision that could wind up killing all four men is being shown, I understood where both sides were coming from and cared about these people (even more so, because apparently the film is very accurate to the real story).

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As far as the film’s portrayal of Muslims goes, things are very well-balanced. Not all Muslims are terrorists and there is a conscious effort to show that the villagers are equally victims of the Taliban. Another wise decision on the filmmaker’s part was not adding subtitles to everything said by the villagers or the terrorists. This leaves the viewer just as confused as the soldiers stuck in this unfamiliar territory. The scenes of combat ratcheted up the tension and kept me off guard to where the next attack would come from. This is a brutal movie and the violence is hard to watch. As it should, the gritty realistic style distinctly demonstrated the horrors of war. Annoying shaky camera work was employed occasionally and nearly caused some almost headache inducing moments. These don’t make up a majority of the film though and didn’t detract too much from the experience overall.

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One of the storytelling techniques was the overused cliché of starting the film with a crucial scene that takes place in the near the final moments. Then a title card pops up (in this case: Three Days Earlier) and the 95% of the film is told previous to what we’ve just seen. This means that the viewer knows well in advance who the title lone survivor is. It doesn’t spoil things to a high degree and I am aware that this film is based on a true story. The tension would have been raised to the max if the film had a straight-forward narrative and the film would have been even more affective by the powerful monologue in the conclusion.

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LONE SURVIVOR is a realistic film about the bravery and sacrifice of men who fought for their country. The performances are rock solid. The scales are balanced on how people in the Middle East are portrayed and never dips into negative stereotypes. This is an intense and powerful experience that’s well worth your time!

Grade: A

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