Posts Tagged ‘Savages’

Metro in Focus: Hollywood is the winner of the ‘war on drugs’

By Richard Crouse – In Focus

The “war on drugs” is one of the longest battles in American history. In 1971 President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one,” vowing combat against drug producers and dealers.

Forty years and many billions of dollars later the Global Commission on Drug Policy stated, “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”

Last year, writing in the New York Times, Mexican journalist José Luis Pardo Veiras echoed those sentiments. “Drugs continue to stream north to the United States, the great user, and firearms enter Mexico in return, where they kill thousands.”

The fight has been a failure for everyone except Hollywood, which has consistently mined the war on drugs for stories and colourful characters. This weekend Tom Cruise stars in the latest tale from the war on drugs, American Made, the real-life story of Barry Seal, adrenaline junkie and TWA pilot.

The story begins with Seal being hired by the CIA to take reconnaissance photos of Soviet-backed insurgents in South America. His life quickly spirals out of control as he becomes a courier between the CIA and Panamanian CIA informant General Manuel Noriega while also working as a cocaine smuggler for the Medellin Cartel.

Drug cartel stories are tailor made for the movies. Populated by bigger-than-life characters like the wealthiest criminal in history, the so-called “The King of Cocaine,” Pablo Escobar, the stories have it all: glamour, drama, moral ambiguity and the primal clash of good and evil. Here are three films with three very different approaches to the war on drugs.

One critic described Sicario as a “French Connection for the drug-fuelled Mexico-US border war.” Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin, it’s a drama about an idealistic FBI agent working with an elite task force to stem the flow of drugs between Mexico and the United States. It’s gritty and certainly not a feel-good movie about winning the war on drugs. Instead, it’s a powerful look at a seemingly unwinnable battle and the toll it takes on its soldiers.

Savages is an over-the-top Oliver Stone movie that sees Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch as drug dealers and two thirds of a love triangle with a California cutie played by Blake Lively. Their product, a potent strain of legal medical-grade marijuana, earns the attention of a Mexican Baja drug Cartel boss (Salma Hayek) who’ll do anything to create a “joint” venture, including kidnapping and murder.

Savages, at its black-hearted best, is a preposterous popcorn movie that sees Stone leave behind the restraint of movies like W and World Trade Center and kick into full bore, unhinged Natural Born Killers mode. It’s a wild, down ’n dirty look into the business of drugs and revenge.

Smaller in scale is End of Watch. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña play patrol cops in Los Angeles’s tough South Central neighbourhood. A routine traffic stop turns into something bigger when they confiscate money and guns from a cartel member. “Be careful,” they’re warned by a senior officer, “You just tugged on the tail of a snake that’s going to turn around and bite you.”

These movies and others, like Code of the West and The House I Live In, prove the winners of the war on drugs are filmmakers.

LONE SURVIVOR: 3 ½ STARS. “Did they really shoot me in the ******* head?”

Lone-Survivor“Lone Survivor” provides further proof that war is, indeed, hell.

The battle scene that takes up much of the film’s running time is a Hieronymus Bosch style glimpse into the very heart of battle. Grisly and gory, it is about pushing the limits of endurance as far as possible.

But “Lone Survivor” isn’t simply a shoot ‘em up.

Between the bullets is a complex story about morality and the men who put themselves in harm’s way.

The film is based on the real-life SEAL Team 10’s Operation Red Wings, a failed 2005—the movie’s title in itself is a spoiler—War in Afghanistan mission to locate, capture (or eliminate) Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami).

The carefully planned operation goes wrong almost as soon as the team—SO2 Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), LT Michael P. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), SO2 Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and SO2 Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster)—touch ground in the Kush Mountains. Their job is hindered by faulty a communication radio, but the mission is undone when they are discovered by an older man and two boys.

The commandoes make the decision to let the four unarmed shepherds go, but their kindness comes back to haunt them when shortly afterwards a Taliban army descends on their position and they are hopelessly outnumbered.

There’s no gunfire in the first hour of “Lone Survivor.” The time is spent getting to know the characters, their situation and absorbing the gravity of the mission at hand. Then, sixty minutes in, it turns into a bullet ballet. But it is those opening minutes that make the payoff of the last hour so potent.

Without getting to know the brotherhood the characters share we won’t buy in later on when their bond and training are the only things that will decide their fate.

The acting is uniformly good. Walhberg is understated but undeniably powerful as the Luttrell. His character is the glue that holds the movie together, and he delivers.

As the sharp-tongued and direct Axelson Ben Foster is, well, Ben Foster. He’s one of the best actors working today and his portrayal is passionate, patriotic but grounded in truth. It takes some doing to deliver a line like, “Did they really shoot me in the ******* head?” with any measure of believability, but Foster manages.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is Taylor Kitsch. He had a bad couple of years after becoming a small screen star on “Friday Night Lights.” The promise of a big screen career seemed to evaporate in the trifecta of failure—big budget flops “John Carter,” “Battleship,” “Savages”—but here he finds his groove and reminds us of the charisma that made him a name in the first place.

“Lone Survivor” is a visceral experience. Not since “Saving Private Ryan” has a battle scene been so effectively rendered but at its core it isn’t a propaganda film or a slice of patriotism; instead it’s a stark reminder of the camaraderie of soldiers in the field.


taylor-kitsch-savages-imageI knew “Savages” was going to be an over-the-top Oliver Stone movie from the opening minutes. A “wargasm” reference was my first clue and by the time Benicio Del Toro literally twirled his moustache like a pantomime baddie I knew this wasn’t the same restrained director who gave us “W” and “World Trade Center,” this was Stone in unhinged “Natural Born Killers” mode. It’s a wild ride, but I found it more flamboyant than fun.

Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch are Ben and Chon, entrepreneurs, drug dealers and two thirds of a love triangle with California cutie Ophelia (Blake Lively). They sell a potent strain of legal medical grade marijuana but also siphon off some for illicit practice and profit, which earns the attention of a Mexican Baja drug Cartel run by Elena (Salma Hayek). She’ll do anything to create a “joint” venture, including kidnapping their shared paramour Ophelia. Revenge turns bloody when Elena’s enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), gets involved and complicated when a dirty DEA agent (John Travolta) double-crosses everyone.

“Savages” is definitely a good-looking movie from the stars to the scenery, but I thought the cast was really interesting as well as pretty. Johnson and Kitsch are good and evil, flip sides of the same coin, Lively isn’t as sprightly as her name might suggest, but she does do damaged quite well. I also enjoyed Travolta, Hayek and Del Toro chewing the scenery but I felt it hard to care about any of them. They’re all rather despicable, and I found myself hoping they’d all end up in a Mexican standoff, firing until no one was left standing.

But stand they do, so for a little over two hours we’re taken to their world of double-crosses, beheadings, threesomes and seemingly pointless close-ups of beaches, crabs and Buddha statues. Stone is a sensualist, allowing his camera to caress Lively’s face and fill the screen with beautiful images. Even Del Toro’s torture scenes have a certain glamorous élan to them, but as entertaining to the eye as it all is, it’s a rather empty experience.

The plotting goes crazy near the middle, and any comment on the morality of the drug trade, one way or another, is sidestepped in favor of an ending—and this is no spoiler—that seems to want to play both sides of the intellectual fence.

Perhaps I expected too much. “Savages” is at its black-hearted best a preposterous popcorn movie that strives to be something more, but the film’s message apparently went, like the product that makes all the characters do such horrible things, up in smoke.