The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, July 29, 2012


First released in 2010, author Don Winslow's novel Savages is a mostly entertaining, sometimes maddening and uniquely written story. The trailer for 2012's Savages -- the feature film version -- had me intrigued so I read the book first and was glad I did. The movie? Mostly entertaining, sometimes maddening and....yeah, that ending. Wow, what a mess. Still worth a watch, but I'll have some advice on the ending later.

Selling and distributing some of the best marijuana that southern California has ever seen, Iraq war vet Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and pacifist/botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson) are making money hand over fist and have been doing so for years. In fact, their business is too good because now they've attracted the attention of the powerful Baja Cartel in Mexico, run with an iron fist by the brutal Elena (Salma Hayek) and her enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro). Seeing through the ruse of an offer, Chon and Ben turn down an offer to become "partners" with the cartel, and quickly feel the repercussions when their mutual girlfriend, O, short for Ophelia (Blake Lively), is kidnapped by the Baja cartel. What to do now? Go along with the previously offered plan, or come up with a new one that will bring O back to them?

With movies like World Trade Center, W., and his Wall Street sequel, director Oliver Stone got away from that brutal, in your face, aggressive style that shot him to stardom behind the cameras. It's safe to say that with this drug crime thriller, he's back to basics. This is a world where our heroes are drug dealers, somewhat idealistic drug dealers (well, Ben at least), but you get the point. It's a down and dirty world where lives come cheap, and the end result is accepted if there is enough money or supply to justify the means. The bad guys are bad whether they be the indie drug dealers, the sadistically evil cartel, or even the corrupt DEA agents involved. It's good to see Stone get back to that darker view of the world. Hopefully he keeps up with movies like this.

What allows the movie to be entertaining considering it deals with such a dark, nasty occupation is the style Stone brings to it. It's the type of style you're either going to go along with it and enjoy it or resent it almost immediately. The intro gets things rolling, Lively's O stating "Just because I'm telling this story doesn't mean I'm alive in the end." There are artsy retro title cards to introduce where the action takes place. Stone films with a variety of film styles; black and white, digital, good old-fashioned formatting, hyper edited in a few instances. And the Laguna Beach/Mexico location sure adds a lot of color to the proceedings. The soundtrack too is a positive boost, an eclectic mix of classical music, choirs, modern pop/rock, and an almost ethereal sound of beach music. Throwing so much at the wall and seeing what sticks shouldn't work like this -- it just shouldn't -- but the completely random collection ends up doing just that.

Opinions will vary no doubt, but the casting department did a fine job selecting its three young leads. The dynamic among O, Chon and Ben is certainly unique; two well-to-do, attractive 20-somethings sharing a girlfriend? Hayek's Elena has some fun with that, telling O they'll never love her as much as they love each other. However you interpret that odd triangle, Kitsch, Johnson and Lively are all surprisingly good. Kitsch especially stands out, his Chon a veteran of a 2-year stretch in Iraq and Afghanistan where he saw the worst the world can offer. His enforcer attitude works well alongside Johnson's Ben, his highly intelligent, idealistic business partner. Ben struggles to comprehend the violence the duo will have to undertake if they hope to succeed. My least favorite character in the book as well as the movie, O as done by Lively is the weakest link, but it's not a bad performance, especially late when the kidnapping goes down. Her narration is beyond bad at times (not her fault), that awful mix of trying to be smart and pretentiously unique. She says at one point "I have orgasms, Chon has wargasms." Oh, clever!

Then there's the fun, more over the top, and in some cases, stereotypical roles, but dammit, these actors are enjoying themselves. Start with Salma Hayek as Elena, the leader of the Baja cartel who does it with as little humanity as possible. She's cold, sinister, intimidating and seems to be channeling some Spanish soap operas at times, but it's a solid performance. Del Toro as Lado is a scene-stealer. He is callous in his brutality, less than honest in his dealings, and interested in saving his own backside first and foremost. Rounding out the bigger parts, John Travolta is also a scene-stealer right up there with Del Toro as he plays Dennis, the DEA agent working with Ben and Chon -- and seemingly everyone else -- to keep the drug wars away....and a little extra cash in his pocket. Also look for Emile Hirsch in a quick, memorable part as Spin, Ben and Chon's money launderer, and recent Oscar nominee Demian Bichir as Alex, Elena's "accountant" of sorts.

So here we are. The ending. Winslow's ending in the novel is a bloody, chaotic gem that worked on so many levels, both for the characters, the story and the general darkness of the story. The odd thing? Stone uses that ending too, and then literally rewinds back and erases that ending, O explaining 'And this is how it really happened.' It is the definition of a cop out. Not only that, you feel duped as a viewer. We see one ending -- a highly effective one -- and then are introduced to a genuinely dumb, tacked-on ending. What was Stone thinking? This new ending is single-handedly able to ruin the movie. So rather than rip the entire movie, I'm trying to think outside of the box a little. For me, the ending comes right before "O's rewind." That epilogue, explaining how everything turned out, doesn't exist in my mind. I can't believe Stone willingly changed that "alternate" ending though. It's that bad. The movie though is still very entertaining and worth a watch.

Savages <---trailer (2012): ***/****

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