Baditude and the cartoon cartel: 8 notes on Savages
Little darling, it's been a long, cold, lonely winter . . .
1) I guess I shouldn't have read Don Winslow's novel Savages before seeing the movie. His breakthrough 2010 crime thriller uses line breaks for emphasis much like a poem does, only with more expletives. Much of the time, the smart-ass, in-your-face, snide attitude of the novel keeps it engaging. Winslow likes to juxtapose opposites, so the two marijuana-growing entrepreneurs' personalities provide a study in contrasts: Chon has the proto-fascist, quiet-but-lethal Iraq War vet "baditude" whereas Ben is peaceful, contemplative, and Buddhist. He likes to spend his massive ganja profits on good humanitarian causes in Africa while Chon provides the violence to protect their business. Ben and Chon could live happily high ever after in Laguna Beach, California with their orgasm-loving, blond male-fantasy girlfriend named O (after Ophelia) in a Jules et Jim-esque threesome except that the Mexican Baja Cartel wants in on their operation. Some choice quotes from the novel:
a) "And this is what most Americans don't understand--that most upper -to middle-crust Mexicans think that Americans are uncivilized, unsophisticated, uncultured, rambunctious rustics who just got on a lucky streak back in the 1840s and rode it to steal half of Mexico" (106).
b) "The savage is the world of pure raw power, survival of the fittest, drug cartels and death squads, dictators and strongmen, terrorist attacks, gang wars, tribal hatreds, mass murder, mass rape.
The less savage is the world of pure civilized power, governments and armies, multinationals and banks, oil companies, shock-and-awe, death-from-the-sky, genocide, mass economic rape.
And Chon knows--
They're the same world" (131).
c) "Dawn finds them--
Dawn doesn't `find' shit--dawn's not looking. (The only redeeming quality of the universe, Chon believes, is its indifference)" (170).
2) After enjoying the novel, I went to see the movie. While admiring the Rastafarian cinematography that kept finding ways to use red, green, and yellow, I immediately found a problem with Taylor Kitsch cast as Chon with a bunch of fake scars on his face. I had not only just seen him in the confusing John Carter, but he had also just starred as Lieutenant Alex Hopper in Battleship. Alex sucks up to Admiral Liam Neeson in a movie that itself sucks up to the Navy. To see Kitsch now as an expert veteran "killer" is a bad joke in casting.
3) Aaron Johnson as Ben makes more sense, since he appears the more sensitive of the two, and Blake Lively has no problem playing a fantasy California bohemian. Benicio Del Toro's Lado (the major "savage" henchman for the Cartel) sports a distracting Elvis pompadour, and his version of the Mexican bad guy came across as mustache-twirling cartoonish. While the Lado of the novel proved cold, blunt, and largely indifferent to female enticements, Oliver Stone's version seems patterned on movie stereotypes of the Mexican villain who leers and drools over the woman in distress.
4) Soon enough, the Cartel kidnaps O, leaving Ben and Chon (who sound like they should be selling ice cream) desperately trying to figure out a way to get their beloved O back. The film tries to be transgressive by being in favor of decriminalizing pot (with Peter Tosh's "Legalize It" playing in the soundtrack) and by having John Travolta (a corrupt DEA agent named Dennis) say that the drug will be legalized soon, but Stone is so busy catering to stoners, he doesn't seem to want to acknowledge the irony of his two bare-chested heroes getting high just when O disappears. While the novel gradually has Ben and Chon work out elaborate ways to fool and steal from the Cartel, the movie only has time to sample some of these techniques before adding on a (spoiler alert) jaw-droppingly bogus and indecisive double ending which ruined the movie for me.
Some other cinematic rules of thumb that Oliver Stone violates:
5) Do not destroy plausibility just to make a better scene. Is it likely that the Cartel would have a Pre-Raphaelite print of Ophelia (along with some blood) on O's cell wall? No self-respecting kidnapper would bother to use a literary allusion as interior decoration--but it looks good. Would the Cartel Queenpin Elena (Salma Hayek) invite O over for a nice private dinner at her ranch? Given that she may have to kill her at any point, probably not. Would Elena show up for a hostage trade-off? She doesn't in the book, but again, for the movie, it makes for a better scene.
6) Do not cut out Uma Thurman's role as O's mother for a bogus and lengthy alternate ending that also has a Yuna cover of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" burbling sweetly and sentimentally over the soundtrack.
7) Do not pad your attempts at toughness by making references to Quentin Tarantino movies. Like Reservoir Dogs (1992), Savages includes a moment where a man douses another one in gasoline, but whereas the former provides a great study in sadism, the latter descends into gimmicky torture porn. In Pulp Fiction (1994), Samuel L. Jackson takes a bite of a man's cheeseburger to emphasize his cruel hit-man ownership of the situation. In Savages, Lado invades John Travolta's (or Dennis') home, grabs his sandwich, removes the tomato slices, and then chomps on it. In both cases, the borrowed noir brutality ends up caricaturing Tarantino, although Stone's inclusion of Travolta (who was also in Pulp Fiction) in the latter scene proved amusing.
8) Ultimately, Savages' pseudo-hip machismo cannot face the darker implications of the novel. In reality, the highly organized Cartel makes for a daunting enemy because, as noted in The New York Times, they "reap $18 billion to $39 billion in drug sales in the United States each year." In the words of a former undercover DEA agent, they "control both the Mexican and the US border, because they have the money to do it. America is more addicted to drug money than they are to drugs. There is so much money." By compromising the ruthlessness of the Cartel for cinematic effect, Savages betrays the bean-counters' paranoia at Universal Studios. It goes to prove that even with its druggy transgressions, Savages is in the business to reassure us. It's not nearly savage enough.