Drugs are a dangerous game, and it seems like Oliver Stone knows this fairly well. In the 1983 cult classic Scarface, which he wrote for Brian De Palma, and his new release Savages, which he co-wrote with Shane Salerno and novelist Don Winslow, as well as directed, he shares stories of young guys who start small in the drug game and climb to a whole new level they’re not prepared for.
Iconic gangster Tony Montana and the duo of modern-day marijuana moguls Ben and Chon hold their own (to a point) when the big boys come to play in their respective movies, but how will they fare when they go up against each other? In Savages, Ben and Chon are pitted against a powerful Mexican cartel that wants to move in on their business, whereas Scarface’s Montana is the guy who would do the moving in to take over at all costs. Can the Cuban political refugee in search of the American Dream come out on top on the dangerous streets of this Movie Smackdown, or will the UC Berkley grad and former Navy SEAL dominate and declare that the world is theirs? All three end up being savage drug lords, but only one or two can survive this matchup.
After raising their pot-growing business from the seed up, the intelligent and worldly Ben (Aaron Johnson) and the intense and resilient Chon (Taylor Kitsch) have the best weed in the world. When the Baja Cartel discovers their incredible product and effective business model, they try to bring Ben and Chon into the fold. But the gringos are looking to get out of the business, which prompts the cartel to persuade them by kidnapping O (Blake Lively), the girl they both love, in order to make them come around. No longer worried about business or money, the boys do everything they can to get their woman back.
During the movie, which is based on Winslow’s acclaimed novel, I couldn’t help but ask why this was all happening. It’s not like Ben and Chon are against breaking the law, since they sent their weed over state lines all the time. Hell, they even smuggled the seeds from Afghanistan when Chon did his second tour of duty, so it didn’t seem like accepting the cartel’s sweet deal would be out of character. It was hard for me to buy the whole story after that.
Despite some unbelievable plot points, the ensemble cast, including John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Damian Bichir and especially Benicio Del Toro, was pretty great. Del Toro’s character was super interesting and badass, commanding the screen. On the flip side, I disliked Blake Lively. It could have been the way her character was written or the mere fact that she did an annoying voice-over, dishing out exposition in the beginning, but either way, I didn’t care what happened to her character. If she didn’t feel compelled to do the stereotypical Laguna Beach girl thing and make a trip to the mall before fleeing the country, then Ben and Chon wouldn’t have had to deal with saving her in the first place. I wouldn’t have minded if they’d just written her off, but then… no movie.
A contemporary remake of a 1932 Howard Hawks film, Brian De Palma’s 1983 version of Scarface has made a cultural imprint on today’s society. Though it received mixed reviews, it rose to cult status and spawned a number of trends like parodies of the theatrical poster and the use of the Cuban pronunciation, “mang” (for “man”). The film follows Al Pacino as Montana, a Cuban refugee who comes to Miami with the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and rises to the top of a cocaine empire after starting as a dishwasher.
I’ve heard for years how great this movie is, but honestly, after finally seeing it, I liked the original 1932 version better overall. I know that makes me sound like the super pretentious film major I am, but I was more interested in Tony Camonte’s rise and fall than Tony Montana’s. De Palma’s Scarface starts out as a fascinating sociological and personal study, then devolves into a formulaic blood-fest. About halfway through the second act, I was turned off by the excessive swearing and Montana’s disregard for those closest to him. After he had reached the top, I stopped sympathizing with his character and just awaited the inevitable bloodbath.
The first thing that I want to touch on is the Smack within the Smack. Not only is this review pitting two movies against one another, but it pits two drug cultures against each other as well. I found it interesting to see how big a deal cocaine was back in the ’80s as depicted in Scarface, but then I found it even more interesting when compared to the marijuana culture of today. Ben and Tony are both drug dealers, but Ben uses his money to help people in Third World countries and, until O gets captured, plans on investing in sustainable energy. Tony starts out caring about his mother, his sister and his friend Manny, but by the end, the culture consumes him. Yes, in the real world of ruthless drug lords, Ben is an exception to the rule, but I liked the laid back nature of the pot scene over cocaine, which apparently leads to Hamlet-esque ends.
Another thing these movies do is make the audience sympathize with drug dealers. We’re taught that dealers are bad people, but Ben isn’t a bad guy. Chon isn’t really a bad guy either, even though they’ve done some bad things and they’re involved in something illegal. Tony, though he occasionally draws the line at killing women and children, is essentially a very bad guy. He wants to get to the top and doesn’t care who he hurts on the way. So in the likability department, it seems like the protagonists of Savages are more enjoyable to follow onscreen.
Death is a very common occurrence in both films. Henchmen are picked off left and right, mostly in very graphic ways. After watching Game of Thrones on TV and a million violent movies, I’ve been desensitized to things like that now, but when I was watching these two movies, I actually wanted more of it. Scarface satisfied me in that deaths happen essentially for a reason and don’t necessarily hinder or enhance the experience of the movie. Savages almost satisfies too, but the film lost me at the end for reasons I won’t go into here, lest I spoil the film for those who actually buy into it. In my case, the ending annoyed the hell out of me.
Oliver Stone makes it perfectly clear he can write a movie about guys fighting against drug cartels. (I know that Scarface was about more than that, but bear with me.) However, if possible, it seems his writing has gotten more juvenile. Considering the subject matter of both films, I didn’t expect Savages to be as light as it was. But the tone problems were only the tip of the iceberg. Besides the excellent performance by Del Toro, and Ben’s character arc from hippie to badass for the sake of love, the rest of the movie was pretty bleh.
Although both movies are fairly mediocre, I declare Scarface the winner, because it has a more complete story with themes worthy of discussion. Maybe Stone should focus less on the hipstery, Instagram-like camera shots and worry more about the story. He almost had me with Savages, but struck out in the end.