The hyper-violent, soul-suckingly awful Savages was clearly assembled by a committee charged with synthesizing the hippest films about crime and Mexico of the last generation. Let's start with the two white guys (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch) in the Southwest who have a superior drug product and find themselves in a war with the entire Mexican underworld. Breaking Bad, check. The same two guys are also hairless studs who enjoy each other's company courtesy of a ménage à trois with a sexxxy babe (Blake Lively). Y Tu Mamá También, check. A stellar middle-aged actor (Benicio del Toro) wears a dreadful wig and serves as a scenery-chewing force of sadistic violence. No Country for Old Men, check. An innocuous black man (Leonard Roberts) gets his head blown off inside a car. Pulp Fiction, check. Salma Hayek's heaving bosom? Desperado, check.
What about a director for this pastiche? Given that the likes of Tarantino and the Coens, who write their own scripts, wouldn't be available, the next best thing would be the formerly hip Oliver Stone. Sadly, the man who once made energetic, controversial films like Salvador and JFK is now reduced to leering over Blake Lively's backside and overseeing the prosthetic challenges posed by making body parts blow up.
There will, perhaps, always be an audience for films about guns, babes, suitcases of money, bags of drugs and the people who kill each other over them. But as demonstrated as recently as last year's Drive, it's also possible to take such rote material and do something creative or memorable or ironic with it. But Savages is an empty, nihilistic spectacle that takes greed, sadism and tropical getaways as fundamental human values.
"Violence should not be consumable," said the Austrian director Michael Haneke, by way of explicating his blood-curdling Funny Games. While I try to resist such finger-wagging (I loved Inglourious Basterds!), Savages left me hating humanity as I walked to my car afterward. The sickening feeling is worsened when one watches the film in a crowded suburban multiplex (the film also includes a shopping-porn montage featuring two young lovelies. Pretty Woman, check). To experience Savages in a shopping-mall setting is to witness violence being consumed: Audience members chortle over ruptured eyeballs, exploding skulls and the predicament of a disposable Mexican who gets a tire put over his body, gasoline poured over him and ignited by one of our white heroes.
But it's just a movie, isn't it? Perhaps so. And perhaps films like Savages, along with superior works like Breaking Bad and No Country for Old Men, also serve as release valves for our anxiety about our Southern border, which was secured in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (Ulysses S. Grant, who served in that campaign as a young officer, called the war "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation"). But perhaps the border-war movies entertain us as they stoke our fears that the bill may be coming due, that the 50,000 casualties of the drug war over the last five years on the Mexican side may start occurring here.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Summer stars."