Oliver Stone’s precipitous decline in relevance never felt like much of a loss. It’s possible to have fond memories of Natural Born Killers if you only remember the stylistic swagger and block out the painfully effortful attempt at social commentary, but on balance I was OK with never seeing this guy’s ongoing, evidently tepid dramatization of headline news. But ah, wait, what’s this? Savages? The real savages were you and me—we didn’t know what we were missing, man! Nah, this isn’t the return to gonzo ’90s Stone that some of us were expecting, but it turns out to be something better: a studio-backed crime film so purely and viciously entertaining that I’m ready, right now, to put it in the pantheon of Drug Movies.
The danger with a movie like this, which succeeds at a modest level of simple movie pleasures, is to oversell it, especially since Savages has its share of problems. The first act is besieged by an excess of expository voice-over (including an already sort of infamous line that includes the unfortunate coinage “wargasms”), Stone’s cinematic enthusiasm does a bit of waxing and waning from scene to scene, and the nature of the casting makes the supporting performances a few orders of magnitude more delightful than the principals. (Some cite the, er, conceptual ending as another problem, but I thought it was pretty great—Stone earns the right to a cake-having and cake-eating bonanza.)
But all that is counterbalanced by a refreshingly novelistic sprawl that makes fulsome use of the 130-minute runtime. I mean, yeah, it’s based on a novel (which, browsing its opening pages, seems to have a clipped, ironic sense of humor that didn’t quite make it to the adaptation), but most movies derived from novels don’t actually have “a refreshingly novelistic sprawl that makes fulsome use of the 130-minute runtime,” you know? This story probably could have been distilled to a tight 90 minutes, but it would have lost the sense that its world is larger than any individual plot point, scene or character. There is a lot of breathing room here, and a lot for everybody in the ensemble to do (you knew Benicio and Travolta would bring it, but the revelation here is Salma Hayek, who owns every inch of the ‘Scope screen). In this sense Savages' unexpected first cousin turns out to be Jackie Brown (sans tenderness).
But the pantheon I mentioned is for Drug Movies, and the double feature I’d like to propose is not with Jackie Brown but with 1978’s Who’ll Stop The Rain, an adaptation of a novel (Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers) that almost certainly influenced Savages author Don Winslow. Nick Nolte, Tuesday Weld, Vietnam, a score of heroin… Nolte’s Zen warrior persona has been split into two dudes for Stone’s film, and of course Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson are dirt-poor substitutes for Nolte in his prime. But I guess every generation gets the hunky California drug trafficker(s) it deserves.