Savages is the latest vial of cinematic adrenaline from veteran firebrand Oliver Stone, a balls-to-the-wall action film centred around three Californian dope growers who start doing business with a Mexican drug cartel and, as these things go, quickly come to regret it.
Infused with a beachy sun-kissed look the late Tony Scott would lick his lips over, the cast (including John Travolta, Salma Hayek and Taylor Kitsch) bang out edgy performances through the summery glow, providing a chilling counter to the film’s glossy surface values.
None are edgier — not by a long shot — than Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro’s turn as Lado, a misanthropic, violent and utterly foreboding crim whose presence generates a thick cloud of malice through which the 45-year-old Puerto Rican’s shit-eating snarl leers.
It positions Del Toro on the opposite side of the law to the role that scored him tinsel town’s most sought after statue: his riveting portrayal of a Tijuana police officer in Steven Soderbergh’s criss-crossing drug drama Traffic (2000).
The Academy Award was “good for business,” the dashing baggy-eyed actor sometimes referred to as ‘the Spanish Brad Pitt’ tells me with a super-sized smirk in a hotel room in Melbourne’s Crown Casino.
“It’s allowed me to put a hand on the wheel of my destiny as an actor. You know, it’s allowed me to, like, explore things that I have originated. I think that without the statue it would’ve been a little bit more complicated to get things that I want to do made…but it’s difficult to control your destiny as an actor, because as an actor you don’t pick your movies. The movies pick you.”
“As an actor you don’t pick your movies. The movies pick you.”
It presumably also influenced Stone (director of classics such as Born on the Fourth of July, Natural Born Killers and JFK) to cast Del Toro.
Lado and his rock-hard cronies give best buddy stoners Ben (Aaron Johnson) Chon (Taylor Kitsch) a lesson in underworld business, Mexican style, kidnapping their mutual lover and forcing them into an intense game of blood-on-the-chess-board politics.
One particularly eerie confrontation involves hair and saliva, and it’s instantly a vintage Del Toro moment. If it sounds cliched, it’s true: once seen, never forgotten.
Fans of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995) will recall Del Toro’s curt warning about villain Keyser Soze: “he’ll flip ya. Flip ya for real.” But my favourite Del Toro moment is buried in the narcotic rubble of his off-the-wall portrayal of Samoan attorney Dr Gonzo (he stacked on 18 kilos for the role) in director Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal gonzo novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
After you’ve watched the LSD-frazzled Dr Gonzo in a bathtub, half-clothed and wavering around a knife, bits of grapefruit skin floating around him, moaning and screaming and demanding Johnny Depp hurl a portable cassette player into the water when Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit peaks, you will never, ever, hear the song the same way again.
Lado’s hell-raising demeanour reminded me of the words that open Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, both the book and the film, the quote Thompson presumably felt justified the inhumanity of his antics and attached to them a rationale they never really had: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
When I share that observation with Del Toro, he likes it.
“That’s very cool. Nobody can do it better than Hunter S. Thompson, you know, so you just called it right there. Yeah, sure, I’ll take it. I didn’t think about that.”
Despite the pedigree of talent attached, including Depp and acclaimed British filmmaker Terry Gilliam, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — a film astonishingly faithful to the tone and content of its source material — was mauled by critics when it opened in 1998. I remember being mystified by the response. Perhaps being maligned at time of release is a rite of passage for any veritable cult classic.
But being mystified is much better than being heartbroken or out of work.
Perhaps to detractors, Del Toro, best known at the time for The Usual Suspects, seemed like an unhinged psycho playing a version of himself. He was out of work for the next year, presumably sulking somewhere over the warning HST had given him: that his career would be over after he made the film.
“He was right,” said Del Toro in an interview with Culture. “I was unemployable”.
A decade and a half later, del Toro agrees that time has mollified the critical animosity towards Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which now occupies its rightful residence in the canon of crazy-good cult films.
“Sometimes an audience will find a movie but sometimes a movie will find an audience,” he says. “I think that in that case the movie found an audience perhaps years later. My impression — I don’t go around doing surveys — but my impression is that people like the movie and most importantly, I know for a fact that Hunter S Thompson liked the movie…That’s a huge compliment.”
“Sometimes an audience will find a movie but sometimes a movie will find an audience.”
Savages has also very proved divisive (at time of publication the film is sitting on 50% approval on Rotten Tomatoes) and once again I find myself surprised. Stone tells a densely written story (adapted from a novel by Don Winslow) with startling bravado and the kind of hyper stylisation a ballsy first-time filmmaker might exhibit, not an old, apparently over-the-hill hand.
It’s as if – as m’colleague Rich Haridy recently observed – Oliver Stone woke up from a long sleep, snapped out of a haze and delivered audiences the sort of daring and explorative work they once expected of him.
Over the last decade film criticism has not been kind to him, and vice versa. There was Stone’s widely mocked epic Alexander (2004), his mawkishly sentimental 9/11 multiplexer World Trade Center (2006), his “meh” George W. Bush biopic W. and belated sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which left the door open for critics to add to its title variations of “But You Will”.
When I ask Del Toro if he agrees that Savages is Oliver Stone’s best film in at least 15 years (since 1997’s U-Turn, and even then, it gives it a run for its money) he pauses, takes a long, knowing smile, begins with “errr” then carefully makes it’s clear there will be no Stone-bashing on his watch. But…
“I don’t know,” he says. “I would have to go back but I’m glad you liked it that much because he’s made some good films in the last 15 years. So I’m glad that you liked it.” Then: “You know, I agree with you.”
And on the subject of whether he’s worried about being typecast as a bad-ass Puerto Rican?
“That wouldn’t be bad. No. Not really. No,” he says. “I wouldn’t be afraid of being typecast. I mean look at my movies. You think I’ve been afraid?”
In an instant my mind recalls the bathtub. The knife. The hair. The saliva. The ‘flip ya’. I concede: No.
“So there’s your answer.”