WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Best friends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson – in his last role before marriage added Taylor to his name) share everything – their sea-front house in Los Angeles, their drug-production and dealing business, their girlfriend Ophelia (Blake Lively). They’re like two halfs of the same man – Chon’s the ex-military muscle, while Ben’s the sensitive brains of the operation.
Their business is going so well that one of the big Mexican drug cartels wants to buy it out. But visits from the lawyer (Demián Bichir) and the enforcer (Benicio Del Toro) aren’t enough to persuade the pair to hand over their operation, so the cartel’s boss Elena (Salma Hayek) takes her takeover bid to the next level: she kidnaps Ophelia and threatens to torture her until they have a change of mind.
But Chon and Ben have other ideas. They discover Elena’s one weakness and gamble on using this against her to win Ophelia’s safe return and their own independence.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
This film opens with footage of bodies decapitated by a chainsaw. Later, we see an unusually hirsute Benicio Del Toro, delighting in shooting knee-caps at close quarters as he eats fruit menacingly. We’re left in no doubt that the cartel means business.
But luckily for our protagonists, they’re able to drum up an army of their own – literally – as Chon’s former comrades line up to fill the cartel’s heavies with holes.
This is about as violent a film will ever be and still get a 15 certificate. In fact, the BBFC saw an early cut of the film and advised that without some changes, it would be rated 18. The producers complied and got the lower certificate, which will enable more people to see the film, without losing much creatively, as it certainly feels like an 18.
The BBFC’s own explanation notes read like a list of excuses. The film contains strong violence, including severed heads, decapitated bodies but “the footage is brief and does not linger on detail.” There are scenes of blood splattering, torture and a man being set on fire, but “the scenes in question do not dwell on the infliction of pain” or are “shown from a distance, with the emphasis being placed on the reactions of onlookers.” There are scenes of drug use, but “the film clearly shows the negative consequences of involvement in the drug trade.” There are sex scenes showing thrusting and nudity “but no strong detail.” In one scene, a woman is shown video footage of a man having sex with her when she was unconscious, but “the scene is brief and little details is shown.” It makes you wonder what more would have to be included to be too strong for a 15 – or indeed why if Oliver Stone was happy to present his film like this, any film would ever need an 18 certificate.
Here, Stone eschews any pretence of politics to deliver a stylised violent thriller, complete with sex, drugs, guns, kidnapping, betrayal, double-dealing and pretty much everything you’d expect from the genre.
One of the big problems with the film is that Chon and Ben aren’t particularly likeable – why would an audience want to root for a hippy and a gunslinger who share a girlfriend and provide drugs to thousands of Americans? The bad guys are, of course, more brutal in their (excuse the pun) execution, but they’re essentially the same as our protagonists – selling drugs to as many people as possible and trying to get rid of anyone who stands in their way. Del Tor’s enforcer, though, is at least an interesting screen presence. Perhaps the most enjoyable character is John Travolta’s crooked DEA officer, who flips his loyalty back and forth as often as a table tennis ball. About the only organisation he never seems to be loyal to is the DEA.
And from a narrative point of view, it begins with Ophelia telling us that just because she’s narrating the story, it doesn’t mean she’s still going to be alive at the end. You can be sure this isn’t going to be a ghost film, so you know that Stone is going to mess around with your expectations and indeed, without giving anything away, he delivers a twist which is consistent with Ophelia’s opening statement but completely inconsistent with anyone’s understanding of a satisfying film structure.
For the small proportion of the audience that might be trying to take the plot seriously and follow it intently to try to predict how it will turn out, there will be no reward.
It looks good, it moves along briskly despite its length and there are a couple of entertaining performances (Del Toro and Travolta), but its lazy, contrived and cliche ridden plot is less than you’d expect from a director of Stone‘s calibre and ambition. He’s a hit-and-miss director; he mostly hits when he gets political or when he gives familiarity an original twist. What hits we have here have mostly been seen in his earlier films. It feels a bit like a “greatest hits of Oliver Stone‘s genre movies” but if you cast your mind back to when you used to buy albums, the greatest hits, somehow, are rarely as satisfying or rewarding a listen as the full albums the songs originally came from.