Scarface meets Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
I am torn on this movie. I am an Oliver Stone fan (for the most part. We don’t need to talk about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps or U-Turn) and can see some high quality elements in this film that could be interpreted as highly competent movie making. However, this film is a study in contrast in that for every element that seems good there is an equal and opposite element that has to suck. It’s like Stone is the engineer on a ship in Star Trek and has to keep the matter and anti matter engines in perfect balance (Scotty image courtesy of the Star Trek T Shirts category).
The film is of course a brutal and violent drug drama, with lots of blood and torture. However, the contrast to that is that the drug in question is marijuana. I’m sure there are some bad M-F-ers in the pot dealership world, but when I think of pot growers and dealers all I can see is a bunch of guys sitting on a couch sucking on their bong, eating pizza, and playing Xbox (which is literally how I have found every pot dealer on the planet), especially given the fact that it is more or less legal here in California. I’m sorry but I just cannot take the pot trade seriously enough to think of it as worthy of multiple decapitations. In my mind it’s like if you did a high powered finance drama centered around competing rings of lemonade stands. Even the drug use seems tame. The main characters are sparking up every ten minutes but seem coherent and prone to violence as ever. You just can’t compare that to Scarface sticking his head in a mountain of coke and then saying “Say hello to my little friend”.
The characters are all cartoonish exaggerations of every character you have ever seen in every movie ever. This actually works extremely well in the form of a few of the supporting characters (Benicio del Toro and John Travolta in particular) but makes all the main characters all seem flat and uninteresting. Blake Lively is the flattest of the two dimensional plot devices, pretty much playing the super hot stoner chick every high school pot dealer one day dreams of meeting. She acts stoned and happy when times are good and stoned and uphappy when things are bad. That’s pretty much it. Of the two male leads Taylor Kitsch is the next least interesting. His character is a burned out homicidal war vet who learns nothing, develops nothing, and does nothing besides shoot, stab, or blow up things.
Of the three Aaron Johnson’s character is both the most believable and most interesting character. He is the brains and pretty much plays the intellectual pot head to a T. However, as the story progresses he is called upon to do more and more horrible things to people that he would never do given an choice and thus actually develops as a character (albeit in a pretty negative direction).
Anyway, the three way romance that is supposed to be the driving motivation behind their actions felt like I was watching a documentary on the mating habits of a creature from another planet who’s entire chemistry is based on chlorine. The supporting characters (mostly villains) were all in their own way brilliant yet at the same time laughably comical. I can honestly say all the best scenes were ones that did not have the main characters in them. The pacing alternated between light speed and trying to push your out-of-gas 1979 Ford Thunderbird when you have forgotten to take the parking brake off. ***SPOILER ALERT*** The story itself was both wonderfully and overly complicated (at one point John Travolta asks Benicio del Toro “Do you understand?” in reference to some new plot twist and I found myself honestly answering “No, not really”) yet after delivering what seemed like a really cool and convoluted ending pulled a completely different and infinity stupider ending out of the dankest regions of the writers ass.
By the way, the movie is based on a 2010 novel by Dan Winslow. I mention that only because 85% of the plot is delivered to us by Blake Lively in a dead to the world monotone monolog that sounds suspiciously like listening to books on tape. I have always found a monolog painfully intrusive (which is why the final cut for Blade Runner will always be the best version) and this one not only breaks the fourth wall but then backs up and defiles its corpse. It seemed every time I started to get into what was going on plot-wise there is Blake again (whom we had just seen on screen crying for pot) to jerk us out of the story. Sorry Oliver, but a running monolog is a lazy movie makers tool in my opinion.
Another review where I go 800 words without actually talking about the story. Ben (Aaron Johnson-Kick Ass, the Illusionist, Nowhere Boy) is a botanist and Chon (Taylor Kitsch-Battleship, John Carter, X-Men Origins) is his high school friend turned ex military sociopath. Apparently they grow the worlds greatest pot (33% THC? Is that even possible? I would think that any plant, even pot, would have to have stuff like chloroform). They share a sexual relationship with their personal narrator O (ever watch the Story of O? 70′s porn at its best. Anyway, Blake Lively-Gossip Girl, Green Lantern, the Town) that puts the fun into dysfunctional. They are approached by a Mexican drug cartel led by Elena (Salma Hayek-Frida, Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico) who want to partner up. When they plan to abandon everything they have spent years building the cartel sends bad ass hit man Lado (Benicio del Toro-Snatch, Traffic, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Usual Suspects) to kidnap O.
At that point the boys agree to the cartel’s demands but secretly start to screw with Elena by hitting her operations. They are sort of assisted by corrupt DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta-Pulp Fiction, Face Off, Greece) who has his own agenda. Fairly predictable betrayals and plot twists surface like stunned fish after dropping a stick of dynamite into the water. Stuff gets blown up, guys get killed (often in horrific ways) and a really dumb ending forms out of the dregs of the script.
The stars. The story was pretty good until the last ten minutes. One star. Benicio Del Toro was pretty awesome. One star. So was John Travolta as the weasel DEA agent. One star. The violence and action was embedded deep in the R rating zone and benefited from it. (By the way, I’m not going to black hole them for this as there are plenty of other things to hit them with, but if you are going for rated R throw in more than the most minimal nudity. If you are going to this hoping to see Blake Lively nude prepare for bitter disappointment) One star. The character development evinced by Ben was relatively interesting and added a something to the story. One star. In spite of the laughable nature of the pot trade (sorry, but all I can see is Cheech and Chong tooling around in a truck made of pot) and the comical nature of some of the characters the story itself made a lot of sense and was compelling (again, up until the end). One star. Overall reasonably good. One star. Total: seven stars.
The black holes. It is true that I groan a lot when I am seeing movies, but when the stupid part of the movie ending surfaced literally the entire audience groaned with me. One black hole. The main characters were flat and for the most part kind of uninteresting. One black hole. The continuous monolog alternated between driving me nuts and putting me to sleep. One black hole. Speaking of sleeping, parts of the movie could give Ambien real competition. One black hole. I found many parts of this film really hard to identify with (three way romance, for one) and also can’t figure out which character I was supposed to identify with. By the end I actually had more sympathy for Salma Hayek’s character. One black hole. Total: five black holes.
A grand total of two stars. Pretty mediocre for an Oliver Stone film. I suppose this should be taken with a grain of salt if only because the entire film was based on the cultural toxic waste dump of my childhood: Southern California beach towns. These communities support culture only in the way a Petri dish does and in my opinion give every country that hates America a legitimate reason to do so. However, while that might have colored my perceptions somewhat I really tried to view the movie on it’s own merits and for the most part stand by my review. Worth seeing? Sure. The supporting characters alone make this movie watchable. Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta steal any scene they are in and make for a decent viewing experience. None of the camera work demands a large screen so feel free to NetFlix it. Date movie? Nope. Super violent, with some horrific scenes that had me cringing in my seat. Plus no real romance to latch on to and the female protagonist had all the plot bearing of a World of Warcraft quest item. Bathroom break? Pretty much any scene involving the main characters where they weren’t blowing stuff up. If I had to choose I would go for the second scene with the finance guy, where they are trying to interpret all the data Dennis gave them. Not a lot going on there.
Thanks for reading. I am home form Comic Con and am back into full on movie mode. I have tickets for the midnight showing of the new Dark Knight tomorrow night and am really excited. When I find the time I will write about my Comic Con experiences, although I didn’t see a lot that wasn’t right outside of my booth. Follow me on Twitter @Nerdkungfu. If you have a comment on this movie or my review feel free to post it here. If you have an off topic question or suggestion feel free to email me at email@example.com. Talk to you soon.