Ask former Friday Night Lights actor Taylor Kitsch what he did this summer, and if he’s honest, he will tell you he set his career on fire. Yes, let us weep for Kitsch and his Greek God physique, overflowing bank accounts and unquestionable green light to mate with whomever he wishes! In the span of two-plus months he has flopped (John Carter), floundered (Battleship) and flubbed (Savages) his way back to footnote status in the world of popular culture. The good news? It sure looks like he’ll have Blake Lively to keep him company as fame’s benchwarmer.
Savages, Kitsch’s last summer gasp and director Oliver Stone’s latest pulpy romp, is quite nearly good. Aside from its bloated meandering and terrible choice in leading lady, it was one solid landing away from respectable marks from the judges, even if the level of difficulty wasn’t all that high. Unfortunately, the ending wasn’t “stuck”; it just sucked. But that’s more on writers Shane Salerno and Don Winslow, along with Stone, than on the woeful, perfectly-buttocks-ed Kitsch.
For all its attempts to confuse and obfuscate, Savages is a really simple story of drug deals and kidnapping. It’s also one of those movies where almost everybody has a stupid name nobody would ever have in real life. Our narrator is O (Lively), which is short for Ophelia. She is in what some may consider a “reverse polygamist” relationship, in that she is shared by best friends Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Kitsch), who has arguably the single most ridiculous, non-science fiction name ever.
Ben and Chon grow really, really good weed. This catches the eye of a Mexican cartel, ran by Elena (Salma Hayek) and her enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro). When Ben and Chon won’t play-agree to work with said cartel, Elena has O kidnapped. The boys leverage their relationship with DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) to attempt to get their mutual love toy back.
Savages has been described as a sort-of criminal fairy tale, something indicated by the inherent fantasy of two men finding the charisma-free Lively worth murdering over. In that sense, it almost works. With Del Toro given ample chance to prove why he’s the best at skeevy, strange bad guys and Stone playing with non-hyper but still stylized visuals, the noir-ish tale is nearly fun. Even Kitsch, who plays a former soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and thus drops awkward references to things like “going full Sunni,” finds his acting niche: He can play angry, violent dudes with a small sensitive side … and that’s all.
But then comes the ending. Whoa doggy, that ending or, actually, endings (plural). Both are wretched and largely serve to undo the goodwill towards what came before, but had they been in the reverse order, it maybe could have been mildly forgivable. Maybe. By and large, Savages works as engaging pulpy goodness. If nothing else, Kitsch can hang his head on the fact that he was not the worst lead in this one. He should send Ms. Lively a nice “thank you” card for that.
This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Neb.