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MGM Home Video

Starring James Woods, James Belushi, and John Savage

Written by Oliver Stone and Richard Boyle
Directed by Oliver Stone

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

It is quite possible that Oliver Stone is a genius. Trust me, as someone who actively dislikes a great many of his films, I can attest that you don't have to personally adore his work to believe this. But if you have any doubt that Stone is a courageous filmmaker of unusually distinct vision — a director who has a particularly deft hand with actors, an understanding of the human heart of a story, and an occasionally blindingly brilliant visual sense — then you need to take another look at 1986's Salvador, for which he was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay (competing, interestingly, with himself for his Platoon screenplay — and losing on both counts to Hannah and Her Sisters). It's probably Stone's best film. And if he continues the career road he's chosen the last few years, he'll never again create a piece of work that even remotely approaches it.

Salvador begins as a straightforward character study set to some of the most gawdawful soundtrack music in the history of film (the opening credit sequence is so overblown, with trumpets and bass drums and red epilepsy-inducing flashes of light that one actually expects to hear an announcer intone, "A Quinn Martin Production"). James Woods plays Richard Boyle, a burnt-out, down-on-his-luck journalist looking for money and a ticket to get back into the action, any action. In 1980, the year this film takes place, that action just happens to be El Salvador, which promises to turn into another Vietnam. Coasting on one book he wrote about his experiences in Cambodia — and desperately reminding everyone he speaks to of his past glories — Boyle is vain, hard-up and egocentric. He cons his DJ pal Dr. Rock (James Belushi) out of some cash, convinces him to go along on the trip, and what starts out for the pair as an R-rated Hardy Boys adventure filled with drugs, booze and whores becomes a harrowing, eye-opening journey for them both. Between his relationships with the beautiful Salvadoran woman (Elpedia Carrillo) and a fellow gonzo war correspondent from Newsweek (John Savage), plus his growing frustration with the U.S. military's insistence on escalating El Salvador's civil war at the expense of the country's people, Boyle rediscovers his own humanity and purpose. However, the journey is painful, and at times difficult to watch.

Salvador was made by the Oliver Stone who won an Oscar for writing Midnight Express, and his real achievement here comes from the timeliness of the film. This is no JFK or Born on the Fourth of July, made from the safe distance of a few decades down the road from the events portrayed. Salvador takes place as Reagan is elected in 1980, and on the film's release six years later, Reagan was still in power and the same nightmare was still going on in Central America. As a straightforward story of one man's redemption, Salvador is only moderately successful — it's far too preachy and disjointed for that. Where it works is as propaganda, pure and simple. The screenplay was co-written by Stone and the real Richard Boyle — but how much of the story is strictly biographical is questionable. The Boyle/Woods character exists as a device to understand the complexities of the violent mess in El Salvador — we follow him to the body dump at El Playon (a dumping ground for those murdered by the death squads), we're there as he witnesses the assassination of Archbishop Romero, and he just happens to be pals with a woman who is killed in the same bus with the raped and murdered Maryknoll nuns. A ten-minute scene in which Boyle rants at an Ollie North-like military advisor could kill the movie dead, if one were watching it for narrative alone. But it's Stone's moment to impotently scream at the Pentagon over their immoral activities in El Salvador — and, in context, it's necessary, because by that point in the story the audience wants to scream at the Pentagon, too.

There are, however, a few scenes in Salvador that seem unfortunate in retrospect. For the audience to understand what would otherwise be the out-of-the-blue assassination of Romero, there's a scene shoe-horned in featuring the genocidal American-sponsored "Major Max" Casanova (Tony Plana) in a sort of Scarface-esque "Who will kill my enemy for me?" expository conference with his uniformed goons — necessary to explain the assassination, perhaps, but it destroys what to that point had been consistent point-of-view. In another scene, Boyle just has to stop by his sweetie's house for one last screw before going off to what, he assumes, is almost certain death. Besides being idiotic, the over-the-top music by Georges Delerue that accompanies this scene makes it seriously cringe-worthy.

Nonetheless, despite the saturation of Stone excess (fortunately still sopping with creative energy back in '86), Salvador compels because of James Woods' brilliant, neurotic, high-energy portrayal of Boyle, for which he received an Oscar nomination. He hits every note in a rich, complex performance as a deeply flawed man who deep down knows what's right — he just has to get past his need to constantly score dope, money, jobs, ego-boosts and women to get there. Woods carries the picture, amply supported by Belushi (who's yet to see a better role than this one), John Savage, Cynthia Gibb, and Michael Murphy as a U.S. Ambassador who's doing the best he can with the misinformation being fed to him by his own government.

MGM's Salvador: Special Edition offers a crisp anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. The commentary track by Oliver Stone is a dandy feature, although more compelling is the 60-minute making-of feature "Into the Valley of Death," which covers the production of the film and includes interviews with Stone, Richard Boyle, James Woods and Jim Belushi. The obligatory deleted scenes really offer little of interest — it's obvious why each was excised, most being pointless extensions of scenes that were used. Two exceptions: a scene with James Belushi and a whore, probably cut because she tells him that she's sixteen; and a meeting between Major Max and an American PR firm that's funny, creepy and probably very close to the truth — unfortunately, it's utterly different in tone from the rest of the film, and was wisely cut. Also included is the original theatrical trailer and a gallery of 46 production stills.

— Dawn Taylor

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