Odds That Oliver Stone’s SAVAGES Will Be Any Good?

Director Oliver Stone is bringing Don Winslow’s SAVAGES to the big screen.  But will it be any good? “Bet.”

Don Winslow’s 2010 novel Savages is one of those books you chide yourself for not reading sooner, even if you were able to get your hands on an ARC in ’09.  The drug-dealing anti-hero(es) and the adventures of the Mexican drug cartel are all reinvested with some relevance and some actual personality in the pages of Winslow’s novel.  Opening with a brief first chapter, the twin thematic powerhouses of minimalism and breakneckism (in both pace and morality) shoot you through to the conclusion, which is about as Mexican a stand-off as you’re likely to read.  There’s no time to do anything but take a deep breath and hope you come out on the other side (not all of you will).  If/when you do, it’ll be a day and half later and you will not have eaten and your hair will be all messed up.  That’s how good Savages is.

Winslow has been able to write full-time since the success of 1997’s The Death and Life of Bobby Z (which is a good thing), at which point Hollywood came a-callin’ (which is also a good thing[?]).  The film adaptation of that book was released a decade later to a reception one could charitably call lukewarm.  Directed by John Herzfeld, the mostly made-for-TV director responsible for such unwatchable features as 2 Days in the Valley and 15 Minutes, The Death and Life of Bobby Z starred Laurence Fishburne (Hurray!) and Paul Walker (Hurroo.), who in a later interview called Bobby Z a bad movie.  And this is a guy who would know.

Well, shit, now what?  I mean, there’s no way a book like Savages, which garnered critical acclaim from such fuddies as The New York Times, was not going to be made into a movie.  But who’s to direct?  We gotta have somebody in there who knows what he/she is doing, somebody with a taste for not only the material, but the method.  Scorsese’s too into the kids’ movies these days, Tarantino’s too busy with his cowboy movie.  Say…what’s Oliver Stone doing these days?

Attempting to win my heart back, apparently.  I’ve long been a fan of Stoney’s, but even I lost almost complete interest in his stuff back at the turn of the century.  But after finally having read Savages last week, and being more than passingly familiar with Stone’s body of work, I’m gonna go ahead and give him pretty good odds at batting this one into the parking lot.  Let’s break down what makes me so sure, hm?

1. Platoon (1986)

After making a name for himself writing some of the bigger deal movies of the early ‘80s, like Conan the Barbarian and Scarface, Stone made his first directorial splash with this Vietnam tale.  Part of a slew of other ‘Nam flicks of the time like Full Metal Jacket and Casualties of War, Platoon held the distinction of being one of the first and most well received, the Academy blowing an 8-nom/4-award Oscar load for it.  On a personal level, I prefer Jacket from a year later, but only because my dad not only reminds me of R. Lee Ermey, but also because he dismissed Platoon as being inaccurate, and if there’s one thing (and there is only one) that I acquiesce to my dad, it’s ‘Nam, since the guy did two tours, from ’68 to ’70, voluntarily.  Be that as it may, Platoon made Stone a household name and gave him carte blanche to do just about anything else he wanted to (and he did).  Odds Savages kicks major ass: 10 to 1.

2. JFK (1991)

The film that garnered Stone a reputation as a paranoid conspiracy-theorist, JFK seemed to whiz past a lot of people if that was all they took from it.  But after all, this was an era where people still seemed to have faith in their government and their leaders, and it was likely the last.  These days, folks seem to take it for granted that there was at the very least some screwy shit going on around Dallas in ’63 (myself, I just consider James Ellroy’s Underworld USA Trilogy to be gospel).  However you slice it, JFK was another hallmark for Stone in that he not only put asses in seats, but got them to stay there for just over three hours.  You can’t do that with just a lotta hot air.  On the down side, it’s at this point in Stoney’s legacy that we have to question: Is this guy gonna ever make a movie that is set in the here and now?  Aside from the two mentioned here, Stone had also done The Doors and Born on the Fourth of July, and I can tell you for a fact that those of us born in a time when push-button technology was established were starting to get bored with this boomer/hippie stuff.  Also, though JFK is, in fact, a breeze to sit through, the source material is far more complicated and layered than the rip-cord story of Savages.  Still makes Stone a major candidate, but…  Odds Savages kicks major ass: 15 to 1.

3. U Turn (1997)

Holy lord, what a turd this flick was.  So many reasons this should have been a groundball for all concerned, yet it came right down to the director and the writer, in my summation.  As I recall, Stone was about on top of the world when this flick was released: he was absolutely a marquee name at this point, and stylistically he was really pushing himself.  A little too far, I’d say.  At one point in the movie, Sean Penn’s character is having relations with Jennifer Lopez’s character out in the woods, and he can’t finish for one reason or another.  So he goes behind a tree and jerks himself off.  I could think of no better symbolism for Stone’s work at that point.  On top of that, you had a screenplay by John Ridley, based on his book.  I gave Ridley’s Everybody Smokes in Hell a go a few years back, having heard good things and really loving that title.  It sucked.  No other word for it.  It’s easy to see what might have attracted Stone to the source material, sharing with him as it does a taste for the amoral and for the flash ‘n’ pizzazz.  But near as I can tell, Ridley’s stuff is all surface: it looks like an Oliver Stone movie, it sounds and feels like one.  But a Stone film is more than the sum of its parts.  Might as well watch a John Herzfeld movie.  Odds Savages kicks major ass: 50 to 1.

4. Natural Born Killers (1994)

But let’s dial it back a couple years here.  Natural Born Killers was the center of a lot of furor back when it came out, and not just for the extreme (for the mainstream, anyways) violence.  The screenplay was penned by a then-fresh-faced Quentin Tarantino, who publicly washed his hands of the finished product (though in a fairly polite, if passive-aggressive way).  I recall at the time being rather torn: I was probably as blown away by Natural Born Killers that summer as I would be by Pulp Fiction later that fall.  A budding young writer at the time, I abhorred the idea that somebody, even a somebody as august a personage as Oliver Stone, could just swoop in and change whatever he wanted.  But it worked, man.  You can see a lotta Tarantino in the script, but the look is what makes the movie, and it is this look which will bring Savages to the screen.  It was with this film that Stone just went completely apeshit in the editing room, no shot in the film seeming to last more than a few seconds.  The style not only leant itself to the viciousness of Mickey and Mallory Knox but to the TV-soaked world in which they lived and killed.  Stone has got a feel for that sort of material, and though it didn’t work in U Turn and only kinda worked in Any Given Sunday, I feel that if Stone uses NBK as a blueprint for this adaptation, we’ll all be sitting pretty.  Odds Savages kicks major ass: 2 to 1.

And there you have it.  It’s been about fifteen years since I’ve been really excited for an Oliver Stone movie, and he definitely has Don Winslow to thank for that.  Obviously, I don’t know Oliver Stone personally, but I’ve followed his career with more than a little interest since I was in junior high.  At this point in his professional story arc, the guy is due for a big comeback, and if Savages isn’t it, let’s hope Don Winslow will write another book for him or something, because they really seem like the perfect couple to me.

Savages is coming to a theatre near you and likely kicking your ass this September.

+Jimmy Callaway rules over Criminal Complex with an iron fist in a Playtex glove. He lives in San Diego, California.