It’s a slow week at the movies, mainly because most studios are too frightened to put up any competition against the revival of a certain wall-crawling superhero who's already proved capable of pulling in one billion dollars at the box office. So this week is all about The Amazing Spider-Man.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Oliver Stone also gets another crack behind the camera with his drug war flick Savages. That thing is in no danger of beating old Spidey at the box office, but it’s at least an interesting alternative for anyone weary of big screen superheros.
The Early Reboot: The Amazing Spider-Man
The time has come for that dusty old Spider-Man movie to be gussied up for a new generation. After all, it was ten whole years ago when Sam Raimi’s long-awaited film adaptation broke box office records and ushered in the age of the superhero flick. Back in the ancient days of 2007 the series got a disappointing conclusion with Spider-Man 3 and kids can’t be expected to remember back that far to keep the franchise going, right? Well, that’s what Sony studio execs seem to think anyway. After Raimi bailed on Spider-Man 4 because he could tell he would have to endure as much tampering as he did on the loathed third chapter, Sony realized they’d have to get a new Spider-Man movie in the can quickly or the rights would revert to Marvel Studios.
So for the sake of keeping a cash cow alive, we all get this reheated Spider-Man reboot rather than Marvel getting a chance to reboot the character their way and bring him into the expanding cinematic universe that just exploded with The Avengers. It’s with these “noble” and “artistic” intentions that The Amazing Spider-Man arrives on screens this week and boy, does the movie feel like a corporate product.
This being a reboot rather than a sequel, we all have to sit through yet another rendition of Spidey’s origin story that has been told countless times in every possible form of media. The basic beats are the same. Outcast teen gets bit by radioactive spider and receives superpowers. After his uncle is killed, he decides to use the powers for good and becomes a superhero. It takes new director Marc Webb (most likely hired for the name over his only feature 500 Days Of Summer) almost two and a half hours to bring the story to its conclusion with teen romance interludes and a bubbled rendition of the mad-scientist-turned-monster villain, The Lizard.
Even though that much screen time is wasted on a simple story, the film is poorly edited and choppy, with huge gaps missing in a convoluted screenplay that was most likely written during production. The film keeps awkwardly shifting genres with the Twilight-inspired emo high school days of the first act quickly abandoned and some sort of conspiracy plot involving Peter’s dead parents, Doc Connors/The Lizard, and an unseen Norman Osborn (aka The Green Goblin) constantly alluded to without ever being explored (I guess we get to wait for sequels for that). As a piece of storytelling, this thing is a mess and clearly a result of too many chefs in the kitchen. Thankfully, it’s at least not as big of a mess as Spider-Man 3 which clearly suffered from the same issues on a larger scale.
The good news is that not all is wrong in Spider-Man country and it’s at least a decent version of the character, if not nearly as accomplished as Spider-Man 2 (which remains a highwater mark for superheo movies in general). Andrew Garfield is a fantastic choice for Spider-Man/Peter Parker, an actor equally comfortable playing a social outcast as an ass-kicking hero (a split that Tobey MaGuire never quite got right).
His love interest is Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, and while on the page she’s a somewhat boring generic character, Stone’s natural charm and undeniable chemistry with Garfield elevate the material whenever they share the screen. While Webb doesn’t have the same visual panache or experience with spectacle as Raimi, the director does well with the love story and stages a few fantastic physical Spider-Man set pieces using as many actual stuntmen as possible. Sure, Rhys Ifans is horribly miscast as The Lizard, that CGI monster is a technical disaster, and all of the side characters feel like little pawns in a leaky screenplay, but the most important elements are Garfield, Stone, and Spider-Man and Webb gets them all right.
The Amazing Spider-Man is plagued with problems, but it’s not like this is ever going to be seen as a standalone film beyond this summer. It’s ultimately a pilot for a new Spidey franchise and Webb gets enough of the core elements right that a more suitable filmmaker given the appropriate time to develop a functioning screenplay should be able to churn out an interesting sequel. This movie is more about setting up a world than a singular experience and despite the wealth of issues, it seems like a decent enough direction to go. Whether it will end up working better than Raimi’s Spider-Man series can’t really be judged until all the movies are in. Right now it looks like a poor relation, but we’ll see where they go from here.
If the rumors are true about Marvel Studios' creative team coming in to help out with plans of crossovers between Spidey and other Marvel properties, it could get quite exciting very quickly. If not, within a couple years the thing will inevitably be rebooted again. Spider-Man is big business at this point. The actual merits of the movies themselves are secondary to keeping that money machine chugging along.
The Drug War Movie on Drugs: Savages
Oliver Stone may not wield the power in Hollywood he once did in the '90s when he could get a blockbuster bankroll for a three-plus-hour collection of JFK assassination theories comprised almost entirely in dialogue, but he still keeps managing to make movies about socio-political issues as they are happening. He’s just not quite as good at it as he once was. Stone’s last two efforts were the George Bush bio W., made during the presidency, and Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, made just as the reality of the recession kicked in. His latest film, Savages, is his drug war action flick focusing on beheading Mexican drug cartels and multimillion dollar legal Californian grow-ops that are both peaking in headline-grabbing notoriety right now.
He’s not really leaning too heavily on commentary this time though, perhaps irritated that no one “got” his muddled take on the current financial system in Wall Street 2. This flick is pretty much a straight-up action/thriller and also one of his most purely enjoyable efforts since the '90s. It still suffers from Stone’s inability to play any scene at a volume below 11 (when he’s violent, he’s vicious; when he’s corny, he’d make Spielberg gag), but for all its flaws Savages is still a damn fun movie to watch, made by a filmmaker with ideas even if those ideas can seem pretty confused at times.
The film’s biggest weakness is that it’s told from the perspective of its weakest character. Blake Lively stars as O (short for Ophelia, and don’t worry—the Shakespearean references are laid on thick), a blonde beauty who lives in a three-way hedonistic relationship with two weed farmers/semi-legal drug dealers. One is botany/business major Ben (Aaron Johnson), a hippie type who believes in loving the planet and giving away profits to charity. The other is Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a war veteran who handles the muscle and business side of things when necessary. Together they are O’s perfect man. “Ben is the earth,” she says while also claiming that Chon has “wargasms” while she has orgasms during one of her typically irritating and faux-profound voiceovers that Stone must have written while indulging in the trio’s drug of choice himself. The O/Ben/Chon trio are a pretty drab and boring lot, but thankfully they get tossed into the middle of a whole lotta action.
One morning they get a video emailed to them from a cartel showing a collection of severed heads; the cartel insists they make a deal together. The potheads aren’t comfortable and try to sell the business, but the cartel isn’t having it. Led by Salma Hayek's Elena, the cartel wants to study the stoners’ working methods for three years to copy them and when they try to skip town to avoid that fate, Elena strikes back.
She has her US-based strong arm, Benicio Del Toro (who amusingly conceals hits by driving around with Mexican sidekicks dressed as a landscaping company and has them use loud gardening equipment to conceal his gun shots), strike back by kidnapping O and forcing the deal. Since wargasm specialist Chon doesn’t take too kindly to that and has some old army buddies willing to help cause a ruckus, the stoners strike back. They bribe their FBI contact John Travolta for just enough info to hit Elena where it hurts and things get a bit nutty from there.
Stone seems infinitely more interested in his bad guys this time out so as dead-eyed boring as the Lively/Kitsch/Johnson combo can be, the Travola/Hayek/Del Toro team more than make up for it. The veteran actors have more of a sense of humor about the style of ludicrous pulp that lends the movie the playful tone it needs. In particular, whenever Del Toro is on screen in his ludicrous mullet wig, you’ll wish Stone had gotten a chance to make an entire movie following him working his way through the cartel.
Hayek and Travolta can go a little too far over the top at times, but this is an Oliver Stone movie, so no one goes father over the top than the filmmaker himself. Though not as nauseatingly stylized as Natural Born Killers, Stone trots out plenty of tricks for a glossy visual presentation filled with fancy pants editing, bleached out cinematography, and not one, but two endings with the film rewinding to change the capper from a romantic shoot out to an ironic drug bust.
It makes sense that Savages is being released in the summer given that it’s the most streamlined piece of action/entertainment Stone has attempted in years (although the studio probably pushed it to the summer assuming that Kitsch would be a star right now after John Carter and Battleship whoops!). The twin settings have some current political and cultural resonance, but once they are established Stone essentially pushes those issues to the side in favor of a twisty-turny thriller that works quite well despite the drab heroes and occasionally irritating directorial flourishes. It’s not a film destined to win awards or be remembered amongst Stone’s finest outings, but it is a rip-roaring piece of entertainment for viewers too old to get wrapped up in the adventures of a teen in tights.
There are definitely deeper and more interesting stories to be told about the California weed trade and Mexico’s vicious drug cartels that Stone could make quite well. However, we didn’t get that. We got a star-packed machine gun thriller instead and on that level Stone did a pretty good job. Here’s hoping it’s successful enough to keep him working in Hollywood.