by Steve Habrat
Way back in 2012, one of the first films that kicked off the summer movie season was director Peter Berg’s sci-fi Hasbro epic Battleship, which ended up being one of the biggest flops at the box office that summer. Whether you loved or loathed Berg’s aquatic aliens-vs.-humans blockbuster, it was clear that he is a very patriotic gentleman. A little over a year and a half later, Berg returns to the big screen with Lone Survivor, a breathtaking true war story that sheds the cartoonish Navy propaganda of Battleship and embraces a hair-raising grittiness that drops you right into the cold heart of combat. While Lone Survivor can be accused of bookending itself with the typical war movie sentiments (brotherly bonds, lump-in-the-throat jingoism), the film avoids clichéd mediocrity through the fluid chemistry between its hardened cast members, it’s pulse-pounding gunfights, and a shell-shocking brutality that leaves you sore and aching for hours after seeing it. More importantly, Berg works in a nerve-racking moral debate, which he uses to set the character’s fates into doomed motion.
Lone Survivor tells the true story of four Navy SEALs, Petty Officer Second Class Marcus Luttrell (played by Mark Wahlberg), Lieutenant Michael Murphy (played by Taylor Kitsch), Sonar Technician Matt Axelson (played by Ben Foster), and communications officer Danny Dietz (played by Emile Hirsch), who were sent into the rocky hills of Afghanistan to gather surveillance on Ahmad Shahd, a high-ranking member of the Taliban. The SEALs set up camp just outside the village where Shahd is believed to be hiding, but their position is soon compromised after three goat herders happen to stumble upon their position. The SEALs take the goat herders prisoner, but after a lengthy debate about whether to kill them or let them go, the SEALs decide to let them go back to their village. But soon after being letting them go, the goat herders quickly report the run-in to Shahd, who orders a small army of Taliban soldiers to take to the hills and smoke out the Americans. With poor radio connection and no way out, the outnumbered SEALs are forced to engage the charging Taliban forces in a gunfight until they are able to radio the nearby American base for extraction or reinforcements.
Given the film’s title, it is no secret that only one soldier (Luttrell) makes it out alive from this confrontation. Still, Berg ups the film’s tension considerably, and he applies a bruising realism that practically blasts you from your chair. Berg begins the film with stock footage of soldiers in basic training, reconfiguring themselves to be able to endure the intensities of war and the unforgiving environments where they may fight. It’s pretty captivating stuff, and you can’t help but admire these men for doing this, but when our four protagonists are wedged into the rocky Afghani terrain and taking bullets from all angles, it’s truly difficult to imagine that the wounds suffered are met simply with loud groans and a quick grits of their teeth. Rest assured that realism wins out, especially when a heavily wounded Dietz goes into shock after taking a few bullets and having several of his fingers shot off. And then there is the violence itself, which ranges from a nauseating decapitation early on, and then culminates in compound fractures, shrapnel protruding from legs, and spraying gunshot wounds that are executed with exploding squibs and red corn syrup, which gives the violence an extra punch that isn’t shaken off easily. What truly is astonishing is that these four men were able to keep their composures, even after tumbling down rocky cliffs and clearly suffering unimaginable internal injuries that must have been excruciating.
Berg’s swipes at realism are also aided by the performances from Wahlberg, Kitsch, Foster, and Hirsch, who all seem to instantly click as a unit. Over the past several years, Wahlberg has worked hard to establish himself as a serious actor, and with Lone Survivor, he continues to earn our respect. His performance as Luttrell is one that the audience really feels as he drags himself over jagged rock and collapses in a nearby stream. Kitsch, who was the star of Berg’s Battleship, gives an authoritative performance as Mike Murphy, the group’s leader who has the final say over how to deal with their grim situation. Foster, an actor who has always remained shy of the mainstream, contributes an impressive performance as Axelson, a man who was willing to do whatever it took to keep his fellow brothers alive. Then we have Hirsch as Dietz, the boyish communications officer that slips into shock after having several of his fingers taken off by whizzing bullets. When they are all together, the group really makes the brotherly camaraderie seem natural, even if they sometimes flirt with burly clichés. Rounding out the main cast is Eric Bana as Lieutenant Commander Erik S. Kristensen, who attempted to lead the rushed rescue mission that ended tragically. Also on board is Ali Suliman as Mohammad Gulab, the kindly Afghani villager who was willing to do whatever he could to protect the horribly injured Luttrell.
While Lone Survivor is certainly gripping and unforgiving, the film isn’t completely immune to a few creeping clichés. There are the expected slow-motion acts of heroism that coax tears to the eyes of the viewer, and the brotherly bonds, while convincing, are laid on pretty thick. Clichés aside, Lone Survivor’s real problem shows up when the guns start blazing and the grenades start exploding. The action looks, sounds, and flows spectacularly, but Berg allows it to overshadow his human subjects, which results in speculation that the filmmakers may have cared more about making an action picture rather than remaining fixed on the men who fell in this fight. Still, these complaints are minor, and they are neutralized by the moral debate at the film’s turning point. Watching the SEALs deliberate the fates of the three goat herders—a group that consists of an elderly man, a teenager, and a young boy—is something that will really ignite conversation when the credits roll. Overall, stretches of Lone Survivor will feel slightly familiar to most audience members, but Berg and his cast do a fine job at paying tribute to the men who lost their lives during Operation Red Wings. It’s a tribute made with scorching realism and teary-eyed patriotism, sending you away with a renewed appreciation for those who lay down their lives for freedom.
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.