by Steve Habrat
Controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone has plenty of hits to his name. He penned Scarface and directed classics like Platoon, Wall Street, The Doors, JFK, and Natural Born Killers, to name a few. After a string of misfires and a hurried W., Stone returns to splatter territory with Savages, a wannabe Natural Born Killers that was adapted from Don Winslow’s novel of the same name. Savages is ripe with potential but Stone seems to be holding back his punches that he throws at us, failing to really engage us intellectually for a good majority of the runtime. It also doesn’t help that his three young leads, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, and Blake Lively, are all astoundingly comatose compared to heavy hitters like the scorching Benicio Del Toro and Salma Hayek. Savages lifts the camerawork of Natural Born Killers and drags along almost as many buckets of gore, but the story rambles on for entirely too long and gets a kick out of trying to overcomplicate itself, which is laughable because the film isn’t that complicated to begin with. I hoped that Savages would be a biting drug thriller that would join the ranks of Stone’s classics but alas, it falls more along the lines of World Trade Center.
Savages is told from the point of view of O (Played by Blake Lively), who warns us at the beginning that just because she is narrating this story doesn’t mean she is alive at the end of it. O is in a three-way relationship with two top California pot growers, who churn out some of the strongest herb you can get your hands on. The brain behind the operation is the dreadlocked Ben (Played by Aaron Johnson) and the muscle of the business is former U.S. Navy SEAL Chon (Played by Taylor Kitsch). The group lives a cushy life in a beachfront home where they indulge in their product and engage in lots of steamy sex. Out of the blue one day, Chon discovers an email from the Mexican Baja Cartel that contains a gruesome video of several smalltime drug dealers being butchered due to refusing to do business with the BC. Ben and Chon meet with a handful of high-ranking members of the BC but they refuse the offer that is made to them. Word gets back the terrifying head of the BC, Elena (Played by Salma Hayek), and as revenge, she sends her sadistic enforcer Lado (Played by Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap their girlfriend. With O in Elena’s clutches, she bullies Ben and Chon into doing business with her but she soon realizes that these two California boys have a lot more fight in them than she anticipated.
There is certainly plenty of hyperactive energy in this Technicolor massacre with plenty of excessive violence to make those with a weak tummy fight back their lunch, but you can’t help but feel that Stone has watered down his trickling gore. It could be called maturity on Stone’s part but Savages lacks a commentary behind all this carnage. Plus, it is difficult to say that this man has matured when he starts his movie off with heads being lobbed off with a roaring chain saw and an animalistic sex scene, all sound, flesh, and fury that ultimately signifies nothing. With Natural Born Killers, each speckle of blood meant something and we knew it. Here, the most intelligent touch from Stone is the way he slips in old Universal Studios monsters posters (Frankenstein, The Mummy, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man, to name a few) throughout the movie, placing them carefully behind Chon and Ben. Even so, what does this mean? Perhaps Stone is making a comment on the progression of the movie monster. They used to be undead ghouls who snuck around gothic castles but now they are young entrepreneurs in floral shirts. To make it even clearer to us, when Ben and Chon are forced to get savage, they cover their faces in Dia de los Muertos masks to become visually monstrous. Our antagonists do the same, but they do it right off the bat in the opening sequence. Can you believe this is coming from the man responsible for that string of gems I listed earlier?
Stone populates Savages with a trio of young faces who no doubt bring the sex appeal but none of the grit that Stone is aiming for. Blake Lively provides the somnolent narration, sounding like she is stoned for half the movie. She further acts as a wrecking ball when she is required to do more than fake an explosive orgasm. The massive talented Taylor Kitsch, who really delivered a strong performance in Battleship, only brushes with that trembling rage every now and then which was a flat out bummer. Aaron Johnson, of Kick-Ass fame, plays a blurry-eyed hippie blessed with business smarts as well as a knack for botany. He loathes the very though of violence and empties his stomach when he is asked to shoot a taunting baddie promising to murder his entire family (What family?). We learn about the drastically different personalities of these young guns through O’s description of the way they make love. This explanation gives way to what could be the most outrageous line of dialogue I have heard from a motion picture in 2012. O tells us that she has “orgasms” while Chon has “wargasams”. I’ll wait while you finish laughing…
Luckily, the kids don’t hog the spotlight and Stone allows Hayek and Del Toro to have some fun at center stage. Hayek is a tour de force as the matriarch of the BC, putting on a quiet cool before she unleashes a stream of wrath that is part English, part Spanish, and all Hell. She is reeling from the death of her husband and nurses a broken heart for several murdered children she has had the misfortune of burying. Her remaining children want nothing to do with her and in her loneliness, she turns to O for some sort of comfort. Del Toro, meanwhile, single handedly steals the show away from everyone with his sociopathic enforcer Lado, who proudly wears a stunning mullet. You won’t be able to take your eyes of this guy and when he struts into the action, your stomach will drop one hundred feet. John Travolta also shows up in a minor role that doesn’t make him look like a complete fool for once. He has a blast as the slimy DEA agent Dennis, who is playing on all sides of this bloody game. When Stone keeps the focus on these professionals, Savages actually manages to be a great movie, but that is only glimpsed briefly.
Savages does have a precious few moments that will have you on the edge of your seat, but all that tension is squandered when Stone arrives at the fake-out conclusion that is absolutely unnecessary. It was almost like Stone stepped away from the project and allowed an imitator to swoop in and finish the job. Making matters worse, Lively is such an inconsistent actress that she makes moments of the film difficult to watch. A scene where she begs to speak with Elena had my buddies and I rolling our eyes in disgust over how unconvincing her pleas sound. The film also drags on for slightly over two hours, allowing this trio of star crossed lovers to chatter on and on about absolutely nothing. Lets get to that stuff that matters! Overall, I wish Savages had more on its mind, a huge kick to the gonads because Stone is sharper than this. We should be grateful that Hayek, Del Toro, and Travolta brought their A-game. They are three snarling Pit Bulls while these other kids are yapping Chihuahuas.
by Steve Habrat
Kick-Ass was one of the best films of 2010 and nobody even realized it. In a year that was loaded with middle of the road releases, Kick-Ass stood out because it dared to be a little different and refused to conform to what a normal superhero film should be. It was a blast watching the little monster Hit-Girl curse like a sailor and rack up an impressive body count. It was an unexpected surprise to see Nicholas Cage TRYING again and actually giving a performance that wasn’t flat out laughable. In the wake of its release, Kick-Ass was caught in a flurry of controversy over the language and the violence that all came from children, some of the outrage being a little overblown. This is a movie, folks! Boasting a well-written and highly intelligent script based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., Kick-Ass is a scrappy black comedy that tips its hat to comic book fans all over while also holding up a mirror to our YouTube/social media crazed society. The film also doesn’t hesitate putting you through the emotional ringer.
Kick-Ass introduces us to ordinary teenager Dave Lizewski (Played by Aaron Johnson), who is just another comic book fan that likes to hang out with his buddies in the local comic shop and discuss fanboy topics. He voices his frustration over the fact that ordinary citizens refuse to intervene when a crime is being committed. In his spare time, Dave begins putting together a vicious alter ego called Kick-Ass. Armed with a modified bodysuit and a fancy MySpace page, he takes to the streets of New York City to confront neighborhood bullies who prey on the weak. While his first day on the job ends with a brutal stabbing and a hit-and-run that puts him in the hospital with permanent nerve damage, he begins training himself to be better at confronting small time crooks. After intervening in a gang attack, stunned bystanders record Dave’s heroic actions and he becomes an overnight celebrity. Dave soon catches the attention of the heavily armed and heavily trained father/daughter duo Big Daddy (Played by Nicholas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Played by Chloe Grace Moretz), both who act as masked vigilantes and aim their attacks at local mob boss Frank D’Amico (Played by Mark Strong). As the trio launches attacks on D’Amico, they find themselves approached by D’Amico’s son Chris (Played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who has taken on his own alter ego Red Mist and aims to break the group up before they can take his father down.
Maybe Kick-Ass worked its way into my heart because I absolutely love the way the film tips its hat to countless superheroes yet at the same time isn’t content with just celebrating comic books. Director Matthew Vaughn pays tribute to spaghetti westerns, Quentin Tarantino, and teen comedies, all which mix quite well if you ask me. The movie has a twisted love story at its heart, forcing Dave to play gay after his initial embarrassing encounter with two neighborhood thugs. He has the hots for Katie Deauxma (Played by Lyndsy Fonseca), who is oblivious to Dave’s feelings for her and just sees him as a friend. The fact that Kick-Ass deals with some extremely raw emotion is what really makes it so great. On the surface, Vaughn cooks up a vivid cartoon filled with vibrant colors and lots of blood thrown in for fun. Yet he never shies away from giving the film lots and lots of heart. We really feel for the grieving Big Daddy and Hit-Girl and there is a longing to be just one of the guys in Chris D’Amico’s heart. We can really stand behind Dave’s noble quest to protect those who can’t protect themselves, even if he does get his ass handed to him every time he tries. The real heart wrenching moment comes near the end of the film, when our heroes begin to understand the loss that they will face in their quest to clean up the streets of New York.
While the film follows Johnson’s Dave, the real stars here are Cage and Moretz. They sneak in and steal the entire film away from Johnson. Cage is wonderful as a grieving father who has to put on a happy face for his daughter. When he is suited up as Big Daddy, who looks like Batman on a budget, he speaks and moves very robotically and it is downright hilarious. There are moments where he is asked to get real savage and he is most certainly game to do so. He gets a fight scene in the middle of the film that is both awesomely hardcore and horrifying at the same time. Moretz is a little hellion as profanity spewing Hit-Girl, a character that is almost a little too awesome for words. She rips through a room of bad guys with such ferocity that would make muscle man heroes blush. It helps that Moretz, who was very young when this film was released, has impeccable comedic timing and has such a way with stinging one-liners. Thankfully, the novelty that this is all coming from a little girl never once wears off. Some may call the performance irresponsible but I say it is absolutely brilliant and a breath of fresh air.
While much of Kick-Ass may belong to Cage and Moretz, Johnson and Mintz-Plasse do their absolute best not to be completely forgotten by the audience. Johnson does soft-spoken nerd very well and he is a pro at playing ordinary. He quickly realizes that he has gotten in over his head, especially when he begins mingling with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. I was thrilled to see the fumbling and bumbling Dave finally get his moment to be a hero by the final showdown. Mintz-Plasse shies away from playing lovable dweeb and instead plays an outsider just looking for a friend. It is sad to see him slip over into his father’s shadowy operations. I was glad that Vaughn never relied on him solely for laughs and gave him some room to show audiences he is capable of more than just smartass wisecracks. Mark Strong as Frank D’Amico is handed a fairly cliché gangster role but he leaps into the part with so much enthusiasm, he morphs the character into a snarling cartoon, making him an unforgettable villain.
What is ultimately the best aspect of Kick-Ass is the fact that these characters, while operating in a cartoon world, are flesh-and-blood individuals that are capable of getting hurt and bad. One character gets hurt when jumping off of a dumpster while Kick-Ass himself hesitates from jumping from one building to another, his stomach dropping when he takes a gander over the ledge. The film really gets interesting when one of the major characters is killed off halfway through the movie and the characters are overwhelmed with grief. Kick-Ass reflects on the idea that in this day and age, anyone can make a difference as long as you are armed with a camera and a social media account. You can be as ordinary as could be but with a little bit of drive and motivation, you can do anything you want. It may not always be easy and we are going to fall down, but we have to be willing to get back up and try again. Sound juvenile and incredibly familiar? It is but in a time when trying just isn’t cool anymore, it is a message that needs to be repeated. Overall, Kick-Ass is an of-the-moment adrenaline rush that plays by its own rules, making it one unpredictable puppy.
Kick-Ass is available on Blu-ray and DVD.