Spider-Man weaves a tangled web, Savages isn’t premium-grade Stone

by Mark Burger

Perhaps the most amazing thing about The Amazing Spider- Man is how amazing it makes Sam Raimi’s original trilogy look in comparison — including the much-derided third film, which didn’t measure up to the first two but is easily better’ than this rendition of the classic Marvel Comics character.

The new film, directed by Marc Webb — whose 2009 debut feature (500) Days of Summer was a modest, engaging little film — is less a reboot or a remake than a rehash. Apt though his name is for these circumstances, Webb’s handling of the material is merely competent, whereas Raimi’s was inspired.

This being an origin story, audiences are again introduced to brainy high-schooler Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), who of course is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops super powers. There’s his burgeoning romance with classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and his eventual battle with Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a scientist who crosses that oh-so-thin line’ between brilliance and madness when he rashly doses himself with an experimental formula that turns him into the Lizard.

The scenes of big-budget CGI spectacle pass the time easily enough, but too often the film slows when focusing on its characters, which were also better played in the earlier films. The film runs well over two hours, and didn’t need to.

Garfield comes off as glum, and Stone (even at 23) seems a little old to be playing a high-school student. She also tends to disappear for long stretches, as does Sally Field as Peter’s perennially worried Aunt May, who has almost nothing to do except fret after her husband Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) is gunned down by a robber. Denis Leary plays it straight as Gwen’s police captain dad, Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz barely register as Peter’s long-departed parents, and C. Thomas Howell unexpectedly shows up as a blue-collar New Yorker who lends a much-needed hand to Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man in his final clash with the Lizard. Anyone care to guess who it all turns out? That’s right — toward another sequel. No surprise there, and few surprises overall. Been there, done that… and it was done better before.

It’s impossible not to compare and contrast the “old” Spider-Man (which was released only a decade ago) and this one, given the earlier film’s success and its ready availability on homevideo. That film was a box-office smash and deserved to be.

At its best, which isn’t very often, the film never comes close to reaching the heights of its predecessors, and at its worst it almost seems as if the story is comprised of material deliberately left out of the earlier films. Most of the time, The Amazing Spider-Man plays out exactly as what it is: a manufactured money-spinner, closer to a corporate decision than a piece of entertainment.

It might be assumed that Oliver Stone would bring the same gonzo, go-for-broke attitude that he brought to Natural Born Killers (1994) and U-Turn (1998) to his latest film, the adaptation of Don Winslow’s best-seller Savages , but that assumption turns out to be invalid.

Except for a few flashes of that Stone savvy, it’s a strangely impersonal, even mechanical outing for the filmmaker, who also adapted the novel with Winslow and’ Shane Salerno. In the Oliver Stone canon, Savages ranks near the bottom.

Taylor Kitsch (“hot” off John Carter and Battleship) and Aaron Johnson play Chon and Ben, best friends who have cornered the marijuana market and share the spoils of their lucrative venture — including the favors of O (Blake Lively), short for Ophelia — the blonde babe who loves them both and who narrates the tale in typical film noir fashion.

When Chon and Ben reject the entreaties of Mexican drug kingpin Elena (Salma Hayek, in full Dragon Lady mode) to partake of their operation, she promptly has O abducted and held hostage so that Chon and Ben will do her bidding. This they do, while making the obligatory plans to extract O and exact revenge, in that order.

The story rambles along at a lackadaisical clip, occasionally punctuated by bursts of violence, toward the inevitable showdown between the principal parties. Despite a trick ending — not a twist ending, mind you, but a trick ending — Savages lacks immediacy and involvement throughout.

The three leads are personable without being remarkable, in roles fairly predictable for this type of film. Faring better are “guest stars” Hayek, John Travolta (thinner on top and thicker in the middle) as a corrupt DEA agent, and Benicio Del Toro, who pretty much steals the film — it’s not’ much of a contest — as Elena’s malevolent, mullet-haired minio, Lado.

Only when Del Toro’s onscreen does Savages come close to approximating the savagery and sizzle that the title suggests. The rest of the time, Stone’s just spinning his wheels.

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