Savages, Directed by Oliver Stone
Opens July 6
China Heavyweight, Directed by Yung Chang
Opens July 6 at IFC Center
A self-conscious attempt to revive old mojo, Oliver Stone's Savages is an average drugs thriller that aspires to channel dog-eat-dog zeitgeist, filtered through the dippy voice of SoCal oblivion. Adapted from Don Winslow's paragraph-a-chapter 2010 novel, it's rooted in an improbably stable love triangle between our fearlessly maundering narrator, O (Blake Lively), and her totally non-symbolic weed-growing beaux, globally conscious Buddhist marijuana botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson) and rogue Iraq War vet Chon (Taylor Kitsch), aka (in more straightforward environs) the muscle.
Only a leveraged offer from a Mexican cartel could rend this perfect love asunder, and, with the help of an amusingly hideous Benicio del Toro, Mexico-based kingpin Elena (Salma Hayek) makes it happen—via Skype! —ordering O's kidnapping and providing the grating film's meager source of suspense. John Travolta saunters about as a double-dealing DEA agent, his casting somehow underlining the mid-90s vintage to some of the Mexican-standoff tension and Stone's musty camera razzle-dazzle.
Overshadowed by the likes of Who'll Stop the Rain for postwar demons and generational malaise, Stone's intently sunny yet irony-deficient film finds Ben essentially waking up to responsibility, embracing the violence Chon has already practiced in their name. But it's less their business than the film that spins out of control: O's narration and presence as hostage becomes an all too convenient device, while Stone seems retrogradely intent on outing the intriguing Elena as secretly weak. As far as Stone's past ten years go, this is nowhere near the historic low of the embarrassing South of the Border but it makes one wonder in retrospect whether the on-message W. wasn't actually his boldest work in the period.
Taking the temperature on the other side of the globe, documentarian Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) tracks aspiring boxers from poor tobacco-farming families in Sichuan province as they get schooled and try to leap past the amateur circuit. But compact, nerdily awkward coach Qi Moxiang (sporting Man United gear at one point) emerges as the film's focus, attempting a comeback of his own, which is as much of a ritual in the sport as the saga of the rising young fighter.
In fact, Chang almost seems to downplay crosscultural analysis, perhaps to a fault, and his looks at parent-child conversations (and parental handwringing later) may feel a bit flat, even rehearsed. The most distinctive feature of the film might be the stoic undertone: camaraderie is a more reliable satisfaction than victory, and the filmmakers follow their hopeful charges even when only hard truths await them, not "boxing king" status. It's a matter-of-fact tone set early on by the spectacle of bloody-faced youngsters learning how to guard against punches.
And so while rodeo documentaries or even Wiseman's Meat conjure up echoes with the mythology of the Western, China Heavyweight resists comparison to the endless training sequences and grand match-ups of classic martial-arts films. Guts, yes, but Chang does not chase after glory, content to observe failure and, remarkably, maintaining the mystery of talent.