DISCUSSION: TOM PETTY AND THE DILEMMA OF A PERFORMER WHO HAS TOO MANY HITS

By R. David

Published June 28th, 2013

Tom Petty performs at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles, CA June 16trh, 2013. Photo from tompetty.com

 

It’s an odd-numbered year so that means Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers will be back in Milwaukee, playing at the Marcus Amphitheater during Summerfest.  OK, they’re not on quite that routine of a schedule for the annual lakefront music festival, but pretty close.  Their performance on Friday will mark the 12th time since 1999 the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers have performed as headliners during Summerfest.  As a lifelong fan of both Petty and Summerfest, I have made it a point to attend all 12 of these shows. 

There is a reason Petty is continually invited back to Milwaukee to play for summer audiences:  The adoring reaction he constantly receives at the Marcus Amphitheater is unlike any I’ve seen at the venue.  While any artist playing to paying fans should expect wild applause and to have their songs lovingly sung back to them, the sheer volume of audience participation and appreciation I have witnessed at multiple Petty concerts is unparalleled by any other act I’ve caught in all my years of Fest-going.

One reason for this is that Petty has amassed such a huge songbook of instantly recognizable hits that everyone in attendance will likely know the words to nearly every song he plays.  Petty has also tailored his setlists for the last decade or so to focus heavily on that wide catalog of hits.  Even when he’s out in support of a new album, he is careful not to neglect the hits in favor of the newer material.  

There is a certain type of concert-goer – and I would guess they’d be in the majority – who would be glad to hear that.  After all, how many people going to a Tom Petty show would be happy to go home without getting the chance to sing along to “Free Fallin’” or “American Girl”?  And just as an artist’s hits are expected to flow at Summerfest, so too does the beer.  Summerfest is a party crowd looking to belt out the choruses to their favorite songs; not exactly the best place for an artist to try out new material or challenge the audience with deep album cuts. 

But then there are Petty’s die-hard fans who are left to essentially see the same show year after year; paying handsomely to see their favorite artist yet again, knowing the best they can hope for is maybe two or three songs they didn’t see last year or the year before. 

I sympathize with the plight of any hit-heavy artist in this situation.  Your audience wants and expects the hits, but you have an entire catalog of other songs – and an entire concern of other fans – you then neglect by default.  My buddy Nick Michalski and I first saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live in Milwaukee in 1995 at what was then the Mecca Arena when we were just sophomores in high school.  They played a varied and eclectic setlist; one that mixed new material (this was the “Wildflowers” tour) with old, and hits with key album tracks.  One of the things I loved about the first few Petty shows I saw – and one of the main reasons I kept going back every chance I got – was how varied the setlists were. Over the last few years I’ve found myself less enthralled with each of Petty’s stops at Summerfest as he has increasingly moved away from that variety.

The good news for fans like me however is that it appears Petty has finally grown as tired of putting on a Greatest Hits show as many of his hardcore fans are of seeing it.  From the start, the intent of The Hearbreakers’ current tour has been to dig deep into their catalog and rediscover songs they haven’t played in years.  They have been playing multiple night stands at a series of legendary clubs across the country, and are also hitting some major festivals along the way.

Nick and I have had long, spirited conversations about why Petty has seemingly regressed into a Greatest Hits act in recent years, what he can do to make his shows more interesting for his hardcore fan base, and if festival shows like Summerfest are the appropriate venue for an artist to purposely avoid some of their biggest hits in favor of less-known gems.  So on the eve of The Heartbreakers’ return to Summerfest, Nick and I once again find ourselves questioning if Petty can return to his former live glory.

 

Ron David:  Holy fuck!  Petty’s playing “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” on this tour!

Nick Michalski:  Awesome!  I sure wouldn’t mind catching some of these club shows.

RD:  Something tells me that he’ll feel compelled to go with a more standard, greatest hits set at places like Summerfest.  As long as he keeps a few deeper cuts (namely “Tweeter” and “Rebels”), I’ll consider it a bonus.  Who knows though, he might say ‘fuck it’ and keep things rare even at the non-theater gigs.  But I kinda doubt it.

NM: Yeah.  It sure would be sweet though.  He must realize many fans don’t want just the hits all the time.  He should play at least a handful of deep cuts.

RD:  He always plays one or two per tour as a matter of routine.  The problem is his sets don’t really change much during the tour so whatever deep cuts they play end up being THE deep cuts of the tour.  He has said in recent interviews that he’d like to shake things up more, but unless it is announced prior to the tour that they will be doing shows with fewer hits, I think they are afraid just pulling them out without warning would stiff with the general audience.  I can see a show filled with rarities working in these club settings, made up primarily of die-hard fans; but at something like Summerfest, where 90% of the audience is just there to party with the hits, it would probably flop.  I wish Petty were more like Bruce [Springsteen] and would just play whatever he wants and be confident that the band’s talent and energy will carry the day

NM:  Exactly.  We’ve had this debate before.  Petty is well–established.  He shouldn’t have to kowtow to a bunch of drunken morons

RD:  True, but I can understand why he might feel like he has to.  Like I said, a few more rarities and surprises is all I ask.  I understand the hits have to be well-represented, and frankly I want most of the big hits too.  Part of the problem is that they only play 2 hours and then get the hell outta Dodge.  Very workmanlike.  I would love to see them stretch the show out because they feel compelled to play more than the bare minimum, but maybe that’s an unfair expectation or standard to hold them to as most bands do typically play a 2 hour show.  But I think Petty and Co. could take a page from Springsteen and give their catalog and fans a workout.  Who knows, maybe they just don’t feel it that way anymore.

I think the main solution would be for him to play theaters in Milwaukee for once, instead of always playing Summerfest.  But that probably won’t happen because Milwaukee is considered a “secondary market” as far as concert promoters are concerned.  Its places like New York, L.A., and Chicago that are going to have enough of a fanbase population to warrant a 5-night club stand.  Plus, I’m sure Summerfest is extremely lucrative considering he seems to always sell out the Marcus.

NM:  Yep.  If he wanted to play different stuff though, he could.  Some folks probably stay home because they’ve seen the same set a few times already.

RD:  They just finished a five-night stand at the Beacon Theater in New York.  It was the best setlist I’ve seen from them in forever – maybe ever.  “Spike”, “Honey Bee”, “Time to Move On”, “Girl On LSD”, “13 Days”, tracks from “Mojo” and “She’s the One”, plus a few hits mixed in for good measure; I would have loved to see any of those shows.  But I bet they’d have tanked at Summerfest.  There’s nothing worse when you’re a huge fan of a group and they play some amazing, random cut and you see a sea of people bolt for the bathrooms and beer tents. I mean, their loss and F them for just coming for the hits, but that stings to see as a fan; I can only imagine how the band feels.

NM:  Festival or not, they’ve got to realize a lot of their fans are younger and want to see a band challenge their eardrums and let it rip.  Just think of all the legendary, iconic performances in rock and roll…  It doesn’t come from doing drowsy songs like “Free Fallin’”.  The more eschewed the better… Live a little Petster!

RD:  Ha-ha.  Well, artistically speaking, and for die-hard fans, you’re definitely correct.  But I imagine 90% of the people at a gig like Summerfest are there to see “Free Fallin’”, et al.  Festival shows tend to be judged on how big a sing-along the concert is.  I think that’s why he’s proven to be so successful there.  He has a catalog that lends his shows to that sort of success.  It may be unfortunate for fans like us, but if he showed up and only played three big hits, I think he’d lose most of that audience in that setting.  They’re there to party, drink, and sing; it’s just not in the same league as those club gigs he’s been doing.  So, despite my own preferences, I get that and I sympathize with Petty’s dilemma where a concert like this is concerned.  It seems he’s in full experimental mode right now, but he’s playing the sort of show where he knows he can’t listen to his heart, as it were.  It’s his own fault, really.  If he had been the sort of performer from the beginning who just played whatever he wanted, his audience would expect that.  But he’s already set such a precedent of being a human jukebox over the last decade-plus, that is the sort of reputation he now has to uphold.  Every time I hear a ‘fan’ or radio personality praise his show or recommend that someone buy tickets to an upcoming gig, the first thing they say is something along the lines of, “you’ll know every song,” or “he plays all the hits!”

NM:  Yeah, well on the contrary, I’d be a lot more interested in catching Petty shows if there was some mystery about what he was going to play.  I’m not saying pull an “Adore”-era Smashing Pumpkins and ignore your entire catalog, but “Runnin’ Down a Dream” would be way sweeter if it weren’t a standard at every show.  I think Petty’s too skittish.  Mix it up from show to show, like Springsteen who clearly works to keep things fresh.  Casual fans don’t even own “Echo” because he never plays it!

RD:  Well, I think casual fans don’t own “Echo” because they’re just that:  casual fans.  And “Echo” doesn’t have any hits the size of “I Won’t Back Down” or “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” so it wouldn’t even register on their radar.  But yeah, it’s a brilliant album.  I think it just got overlooked because, as it was for a lot of classic rock artists around that time, radio was moving away from pushing their new music.  Even the record companies were little help in promoting aging rockers’ new releases.  And they’re the very people who stand to benefit the most from the artist continuing to have hit records!  The Springsteen comparison is an apt one, but again I think Bruce set the precedent long ago that he was just going to play whatever.  Even today his setlists are just suggestions; they always change as the show gets under way.  But he has a fan base that expects that, and when casual fans do go expecting all the hit and get relatively few, they bitch.  But with Springsteen you also get an exhaustive performer who leaves it all out on the stage.  I think if Petty and Co. were on that level of energetic, passionate, and inspirational performers, they could get away with playing a lot more obscure shit because the performance would carry the day.  They are an extremely solid unit of talented musicians and they still sound as good as, if not better than, they always have.  But they rarely seem inspired to take their show to any sort of next level.  And that’s fine.  There’s a place for a band that just plays really great, but it’s probably not the band that will see an entire amphitheater follow them through a lot of obscure rarities.

NM: I can see that, but play 50 or 70% hits and mix the rest up from show to show.

RD:  Agreed.  Another thing is they only play between 18 and 20 songs, so if they play even 5 rarities, there’s your 70%.  And that seems to be pretty much where they’ve been at.  I’d like to see them add more songs to the setlist, and make those additions some of the more obscure stuff.  That way they can still keep all the hits they’ve been playing, and everybody’s happy.  They would just have to consider breaking the 2-hour mark to do that.  They also play a cover or two as a matter of routine.  They should dump those.  They just take up valuable real estate in an already too-short show.

NM:  Their catalog is just so deep.  Even 5 rarities I’d be happy with.  I think even some of the more casual fans would already know a good amount of those just as album tracks.  It sounds like they’re making progress but are still a little shy about tracks that weren’t major hits.  But some of those are still great, fairly well known songs.  That’s how you end up with a Yellow Ledbetter.  Not a single, but a live staple that becomes a single.

RD:  Well, to their credit, they’ve never been shy about pimping out the songs they really have affection for.  I’ve seen songs like “Walls” and “Angel Dream” quite a bit over the years despite them not taking off as singles.  And speaking of songs from “She’s the One”, “Grew Up Fast” is another great, overlooked track that should be dusted off.  I can see them using that as a centerpiece song; the one they stretch out a bit and jam on, like they’ve been doing with “Good to Be King” for so many years now.

NM:  Totally.  And mix up the “Wildflowers” songs they do play. 

RD:  And dig into Echo& Last DJ too.

NM:  Totally.  I don’t mean to rail on Petty.  I just feel like he’s underestimating how much of a leash his fans will give him; and his sets seem more dictated by an antiquated studio-album-hits machinery that just isn’t enforced in the 21st century, especially for these established national-treasure bands like The Heartbreakers.

RD:  I hear ya.  The thing is, Petty is one artist that I’d actually be cool with getting most of those hits each time out – I’d take “I Won’t Back Down”, “Mary Jane”, and “Refugee” at every show and never get tired of them – but I just wish he’d color in the margins around those hits and ad some flavor in between all the standards.  It seems like that’s what they are trying to do.  Though it hasn’t meant longer shows with more songs, unfortunately; and they seem to be reverting back to their more standard, hit-laden setlist for their festival gigs, so that doesn’t bode well for Summerfest. I just really don’t want a repeat of the last few years of a show seemingly on autopilot.  They’re too good for that and have such a deep and varied catalog that it’s a sin to not explore it.

NM:  I think he’s done hit parades for so many years people just expect that by default.

RD:  Exactly.  But how do you start to change the perception of yourself you worked to create?  He’s doing the right thing by playing club and theater gigs filled with deep cuts. Like I said, I think if he’d play The Pabst of The Riverside, or even the Bradley Center here; anywhere but Summerfest for once; he could get away with more experimental setlist.  I looked back at our setlist from that show in ’95, not only was it amazing, but it’s so far from what he’s been doing for the last decade.

NM:  Yeah, that was a great show.  I criticize because care.

RD:  Me too.

Nick Michalski is terrific writer and all around great guy.  Read his thoughts on baseball, music and beer at www.thebrewersbar.com and follow him on Twitter @MichalskiNick.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

By R. David

Published July 20, 2012

“The Dark Knight Rises” is certain to be an extremely polarizing film.  Not only is it in the unenviable position of following 2008’s “The Dark Knight”, the rare phenomenon that was not only one of the biggest box-office juggernauts of all time, but a cultural landmark beloved by audiences and critics alike – no film swimming its wake could possibly live up to such a monumental success or the intense excitement and expectations of its rabid fanbase – but it doesn’t help that “The Dark Knight Rises” almost defiantly lays down obstacles in its own path.  It’s a movie that at once feels over-long, yet not fully fleshed out.  There are some glaring plot holes and leaps in logic; and worst of all the film fails to match perhaps the most important aspect of its predecessor and the lofty expectations it created:  a villain on par with Heath Ledger’s transformative take on the Joker. 

Like attempting to top the film itself, trying to create a more memorable villain than that of the Joker in “The Dark Knight” would have been a fool’s errand.  Anyone with the misfortune to follow in Ledger’s footsteps was likely to wind-up playing second fiddle.  But it’s not Tom Hardy’s fault that the character of Bane fails to resonate in the same fashion as Ledger’s Joker.  As written, Bane not only lacks the complex, sociopathic brilliance of the Joker, but despite essentially spending the entire movie slowly exploring and revealing his motivations, director Christopher Nolan and his co-writer (and brother) Jonathan Nolan never delve the depths of what makes him tick in the same exhilarating way they explored the Joker.  And a third act reveal of his true intentions undermines all that came before and reduces Bane to nothing more than a shaggy dog.

Yet, if you can look past the fact that “The Dark Knight Rises” is in no way a match for “The Dark Knight” and settle in and enjoy the film on its own terms, there is still much to admire here.  First and foremost is Nolan’s typically crisp and taunt direction.  And though script drops the ball in several areas, the story itself is a solid recession-era allegory, fraught with social and civil unrest and big questions about the ‘Us VS Them’/Occupy Wall Street mentality and the cost of being a hero in such a fragile climate.  Even where it fails, the film is never less than ambitious.

The story picks up 8 years after Batman took the fall for D.A. Harvey Dent’s murderous crimes of revenge so Dent could continue to be the symbol of hope and courage that Gotham so desperately needed to stand up to the corruption that was gutting the city.  By making Dent a martyr, his inspiration would only grow, and that was the greatest service The Caped Crusader could do for his ailing city, even if it meant sacrificing his own reputation.  As a result, Gotham has been experiencing relative peace, thanks to The Harvey Dent Act, which allows law enforcement to stomp out organized crime with extreme prejudice.  Batman is neither needed nor wanted (other than in the fugitive sense), so Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, holed up in Wayne Manor, sinking ever further into his own doubt and depression over his decision to destroy Batman’s legacy and becoming a withering physical specimen as well after all the injuries he sustained as his crime-fighting alter ego.  For his part, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is also lost in the new low-crime Gotham; his position now more honorary than necessary.

Enter Bane, a hulking terrorist seemingly hell-bent on punishing the Have’s in the name of the Have Not’s.   However, his plot thickens.  But even as his backstory and actual identity are more clearly revealed, his motivations are not.  Without citing specifics for fear of spoilers, let’s just say that much of what Bane does or conspires to do either contradicts or negates his supposed mission.  Then there is the idea that many in Gotham would sympathize with Bane’s quest to rid their society of all government and any sort of class elitism.  This would certainly be an idea worth exploring, except for the fact that Bane is holding the city hostage, threatening to destroy it if certain demands aren’t met, and commits several acts of mass carnage and destruction.  It’s hard to believe that anyone – no matter how fed up with the ruling class – would support an obvious danger like Bane, especially one threatening their very lives if his demands aren’t met.  This in a nutshell is a problem with a lot of the topical commentary “The Dark Knight Rises” keeps trying to inject into its narrative:  it has all the subtly of sledgehammer beating you over the head and none of it feels particularly thought through or organically woven into the story; it’s all just tossed off here and there, coming up and being pushed aside wherever it’s convenient for the writers, without any real through-line to hold it all together.  The film’s final third is particularly perplexing, zigzagging through so many different timeframes, locations, characters and ideas that it feels like everyone had a plane to catch so they just decided to wrap everything up as quickly and succinctly possible.  This is all the more jarring because the first two-thirds of the movie take such time and care to establish these themes and characters.  Even here it’s not always convincing in all of its attempts, but the last thing you want a slow-build to lead to is a rushed conclusion.

However, the first half is extremely gripping, and Bane is an effectively imposing figure as the film begins.  He is a huge physical presence and wears a sinister mask over his mouth and nose which assists him in breathing.  The mask looks great, but it robs Hardy’s performance of the sort of charisma that Ledger was able to convey so chillingly through his lip-smacking facial tics and gestures.  (And for some reason Bane speaks in a near-Cockney accent that is only intimidating if you find the juxtaposition of something that sounds nearly jovial coming out of someone who is so obviously not frightening.)  But Hardy is a good enough actor and an intimidating enough physical presence that when called into action or framed in close-up where he can communicate his rage and hate through his steely, expressive eyes, he is every bit the menacing threat the film wants he to be.

The film is surprisingly much more organized and entertaining in its first half, despite much more story to wade through; not only reestablishing the world of Gotham and reintroducing us to Bruce Wayne and Gordon, as well as Alfred the butler and Lucius Fox (Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman respectively); but introducing a half dozen new characters from Bane to ‘cat’ burglar Salina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a heroic, idealistic young cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and millionaire Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) who takes an interest in Bruce Wayne just as he may need her to help him rescue his crumbling fortune in the wake of Bane’s terrorist activities.

Nolan clearly likes to work in allegories.  If “The Dark Knight” was his thesis on post-9/11 fear and paranoia, “The Dark Knight Rises” follows, as America did, with the financial and social fallout of those times.  Again and again “Rises” returns to the idea of the 99-percenters waging war on the 1%.  If Bane’s plot, Gotham’s response and Wayne’s financial collapse weren’t commentary enough, Selina Kyle is a daring, expert thief who steals from the rich and gives to the poor (herself) and she warns, “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us”.  It is a bold move on Nolan’s part to use a comic book-based franchise as such an explicit societal mirror.  It turned out to be the perfect marriage of art imitating life in the previous film.  Here it works for a while, but Nolan can’t seem to keep hold of the reins.  Not only do his ideas seem to grow more muddled as the film begins to wrap up, but so do his directorial chops.  “Rises” never looks less than fantastic, but in terms of editing, pacing and overall common sense, he makes some dubious decisions in the film’s back half.  Without spoilers I’ll just throw out a few vague instances that irked me:  Wayne returning home after being lost in the desert; plausible?  Wayne getting back in to Gotham undetected when the bridges have been destroyed and Bane’s people are watching the borders?  Around the halfway point in the film one of the characters makes a recovery from an injury that can only be described as a miracle.  It’s not simply that these things are implausible, it’s that Nolan and his writers don’t seem to care enough to even attempt to explain them with anything beyond the most vague, intelligence-insulting bit of, “Hey, suspend your disbelief” attitude; which runs completely contrary to the intricate, fully-realized world they have created up to this point.  Unlikely occurrences alone might not have been so bad, but there are also moments and reveals that are meant to be exciting, yet end up inciting eye rolls:  Batman and Bane’s big climactic showdown is essentially a boxing match.  Bane’s exit leaves a ton to be desired.  While you’re looking at Gordon-Levitt’s character in the film’s final moments thinking, “don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it”; Nolan does it.  And then there’s the ending which is either literal and laughable (because it would be impossible) or a callback to something Alfred mentions earlier in the film, in which case its eloquent and actually kind of perfect.  I prefer to assume the later.

Now I realize I sound pretty down on this film.  That’s really not the case.  I have reservations for sure, but the good here far outweighs the more disappointing aspects of “The Dark Knight Rises”.  The performances are universally excellent and the movie achieves a minor miracle in that it is stuffed with characters yet they all feel necessary and get room to interact, as well as breathe with terrific individual scenes and moments.  This is most true of the relationship between Wayne and Alfred this time around.  There is a poignancy to their scenes that anchors all the anarchy around them, reminding the audience why Bruce Wayne is so compelled to remain Batman when it would be safer and easier for him to simply walk away.  It helps that Bale and Cane are terrific together.  Even Anne Hathaway playing the burgeoning Catwoman (though Nolan is smart enough never to refer to her as such), which sounded like the most unnecessary addition to the film on paper, feels organic to the proceedings. 

And, in typical Nolan fashion, from a technical movie-making standpoint, “The Dark Knight Rises” looks and sounds amazing.  I applaud his craft, his ambition, his many ideas, and his desire to shoot for the moon and bring this groundbreaking franchise to a close with a big, heady epic that incorporates all of the themes he’s been tackling up to this point.  He has created such a distinct world with his Gotham City, and one that runs so parallel to our own, it only makes sense that he would want to bring it the same kind of closure he would like to see achieved one day in our world as well.  But as is often the case where great ambition is concerned, his reach ultimately exceeds his grasp. 

Still, despite what feels like a rushed and jumbled third act, “The Dark Knight Rises” is smart, gripping and entertaining in a way few mainstream movies – never mind comic-book franchise films – have the courage to be.

3 out of 4 stars.

SAVAGES

By R. David

Published July 5, 2012

“Savages” is a quintessential Oliver Stone film.  Not as politically motivated as “JFK” or “Platoon” (though there are no doubt serious points he hopes to make regarding drug culture), and free of the alternate reality, fever dream filmmaking that began to increasingly infuse his more grandiose works like “The Doors”, “Natural Born Killers” and “U-Turn”, “Savages” rekindles the Stone fires of his more direct character exposes like “Scarface” and “Salvador”, albeit with his usual sense of heightened, bloody reality.  Stone has felt curiously lost and irrelevant as a filmmaker for nearly 2 decades now.  His films of late have generally lacked the same artistic punch and polarizing topical themes that made him one of the most exciting, celebrated and controversial directors in Hollywood.  You’d have thought tackling topics as controversial as 9/11, George W. Bush, and Wall Street (again) in his work from the 2000s would have provided him with the fiery muse it once seemed like he couldn’t contain even if he were willing to try; but that turned out not to be the case with those safe, nearly polite films.  “Savages” feels like a film made simply to remind people who Oliver Stone is; and that he can be compelling, maddening, and vastly entertaining in equal measure.  Far from perfect, but too energized to dismiss, “Savages” is a step in the right direction from a major voice who hasn’t had a whole lot to say for quite some time.

“Savages” is essentially a morality play in which no one is truly good or innocent.  There’s just varying degrees of immorality, making the film’s protagonists – two young pot-dealing buddies and the daffy surfer girl who is the object of both of their affections – the closest thing it has to heroes (hence the film’s title).  What is odd (and brilliant or infuriating depending on your view of such things) is that though we are routing for these people to succeed and prevail against the evil around them, we are never all that enamored with them or invested in their well-being.  Though this may seem like a failing on Stone and his writers’ parts, it is an apt metaphor for the ambiguous reaction society has to those who make their living blurring moral and legal lines.  Sure these seem like a relatively nice, peaceful (even naïve) bunch; and a couple of Southern Californian pot dealers probably don’t deserve to suffer the torturous wrath of a Mexican drug cartel or be exploited by crooked FBI officials; but how much of this is simply comeuppance for the life they’ve chosen?

The two pot dealers are Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson).  Chon is an Iraq war vet with tactical smarts and a world of connections.  Ben is a brilliant and idealistic botanist.  Thanks to his time abroad, Chon was able to access some of the most primo seed in the Middle East, which he smuggled back home, where Ben devised a hydroponic system to turn it into world-class weed.  These two share more than just a business interest however; they also share O (Blake Lively).  A rather clichéd SoCal mall chick, O (short for Ophelia) is romantically involved with both men, and both seem to be in love with her, though the viewer is left to ponder what exactly is so special about her.  She’s obviously physically attractive, but she’s also spoiled, materialistic and doesn’t seem to be the sharpest knife in drawer (at least not as evidenced by some of the choices she makes in this film).  Her sleepy narration could have been jettisoned too.  But love is blind, I guess, and she has the appropriate, pleasingly relaxed nature that a Zen botanist and an emotionally-fragile ex-soldier would likely find appealing.  Apparently at some point they all put their cards on the table and decided the only solution was for both men to share O.  While it’s obvious this arrangement creates some romantic tension where the guys are concerned, they seem to be making it work.  Their lives together are idyllic:  living on the beach, making lots of easy money, each doing what they love and all happy to be together.  

Then one day the two men receive a video of a bunch of slaughtered Mexican drug runners, and with it a message from Elena (Salma Hayek), the head of a lofty Mexican drug cartel with a ruthless reputation.  She wants in on the guys’ business or the same chainsaw party they witnessed in the video will be thrown for them.  Initially, Chon and Ben think they can respectfully decline, and when that proves fruitless they enlist the FBI agent they have been bribing to turn a blind eye to their illegal activities (a hilariously invigorated John Travolta) to help them out.  But their efforts to evade and stonewall Elena result in O’s kidnapping (mostly because they stupidly let her go alone to the mall of all places (of utmost importance) in the midst of trying to lay low and plan a way to flee the country without Elena suspecting they are double-crossing her – see what I meant when I said she’s none too bright and they seem to deserve a lot of what they get?) by her right-hand man Lado (a surreally slimy Benicio DelToro). 

Here the movie turns up the heat and begins to pivot between scenes of the cartel (and particularly Lado) dolling out punishment, O’s plight at the hands of her captors, and Chon and Ben’s efforts to plan and execute O’s rescue, which requires a lot of set-ups and double crosses.  It’s great fun trying to keep up with the puzzle of characters and their true motivations and allegiances.  “Savages” entire second act is a delirious burst of violence, dark humor, and head-smacking revelations.  It’s insanely entertaining.  The performances are universally good, though Travolta and DelToro get to have the most fun (and seem to relish it), while Kitsch and, particularly, Lively are stuck playing often frustrating characters.  Hayek might just give the best performance, as Elena.  It’s far from the showiest, but she is responsible for balancing out all the over the top violence and mugging going on around her by actually relating to the other characters, both her enemies and those she loves.  She anchors all the craziness with moments of confessional dialog and her character is written with an in-depth backstroy and a realistic crisis of conscience.  But Elena is all business and quick to order even those she loves to their death in pursuit of her idea of justice.  It’s an important role for the film and Hayek nails it.

“Savages” third act plays out a bit predictably as the twists and bodies start to pile up, but the viewer is never less than intrigued by the outcome.  The ending will likely be polarizing, but I thought it worked considering the type of movie “Savages” had committed to being up to that point.  Writers Shane Salerno and Don Winslow based their script on Winslow’s novel of the same name, and though I have not read the book, Stone has made a film that feels very much like taking in a satisfying pulp novel.  “Savages” is episodic, twisted, funny, sexy and violent as hell.  Sounds like vintage Oliver Stone to me.
3 and a half stars out of 4.