Savages

Cast:
Blake Lively as O
Taylor Kitsch as Chon
Aaron Johnson as Ben
Salma Hayek as Elena
Benicio Del Toro as Lado
John Travolta as Dennis
Demián Bichir as Alex
Emile Hirsch as Spin
Joel David Moore as Craig
Diego Cataño as Esteban
Shea Whigham as Chad
Joaquín Cosio as El Azul
Antonio Jaramillo as Jaime
Jake McLaughlin as Doc
Alexander Wraith as Sam
Anthony Cutolo as Billy
Amber Dixon as Sophia / Cartel Girl
Leonard Robert as Hayes / O’s Security
Ali Wong as Claire
Sandra Echeverría as Magda
Gonzalo Menendez as Hernando

Directed by Oliver Stone

Story:
Chon and Ben (Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson) are laid-back California entrepreneurs with a lucrative marijuana-growing business and a beautiful blond girlfriend named O (Blake Lively) they share between them. When they take steps to go into business with a Mexican drug cartel, they become entwined with its ruthless leader Elena (Salma Hayek) and her #1 enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro) who kidnap O as a bargaining chip to force Ben and Chon’s hand in playing the game by their rules.

Analysis:
The world of drugs has been one rife for dramatization and fictionalization with film classics like “Scarface” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” setting the bar for TV shows like “Weeds” and “Breaking Bad.” Let’s face it, there’s just something about that world that’s really interesting to those of us who live normal humdrum lives. It’s been a long time since Oliver Stone has made a movie that isn’t directly tied into politics–you can make an argument either way on this one–and his adaptation of Don Winslow’s novel “Savages” has elements that will remind you of those great older movies and even the late Ted Demme’s “Blow,” but also offers something firmly planted in the modern day.

Narrated by Blake Lively’s character using words that could only have come from Winslow’s novel, we’re introduced to Ophelia, known as “O,” and her idyllic lifestyle in a love triangle with two drug dealers. Ben and Chon are polar opposites, Ben a Buddhist pacifist while Chon is a former Navy Seal in Afghanistan, who uses that opportunity to smuggle some of the best marijuana buds back to California to set up their lucrative business. When the duo agrees to go into business with the Mexican drug cartel, their shadowy leader decides to exploit their obvious weakness, their love for O, by having her kidnapped and held for a year.

“Savages” isn’t that complex a crime-thriller although with so many characters introduced in rapid succession, it does require some concentration. Stone takes all of these disparate elements and creates a film that’s teeming with sexual energy unlike anything we’ve seen from Stone in quite some time with California making a fine tableau, established with sweeping panoramic shots. We also are given more than a few hints of the filmmaker who made “Natural Born Killers” due to his stylish choice used to keep things visually interesting rather than going for traditional shots. At times, this may involve switching to black and white or inserting trippier moments, but it never goes crazy enough to lose more conservative viewers.

The ensemble cast Stone has assembled is an odd one for sure, mixing veterans we might normally expect to see in an Oliver Stone film with a trio of newer faces. We were generally more impressed with the latter and what they brought to the table as the laidback California trio with Blake Lively delivering one of her more credible performances, Taylor Kitsch finding a nice middle ground between his roles in “John Carter” and “Battleship,” and Johnson showing a lot of versatility from what we’ve seen him do before.

Salma Hayek is at the height of her game as the ruthless Elena, a tough woman who holds her own in a male-dominated business, and over the story, we not only see how tough she is but also how caring she can be when it comes to her estranged daughter. The other Latino actors don’t fare quite as well with last year’s Oscar nominee Demián Bichir playing Elena’s lawyer, a role that doesn’t require much, and Benicio Del Toro’s over-the-top performance as her personal hitman at times borders on a blatant stereotype. On the other hand, playing DEA agent Dennis gives John Travolta the opportunity to have fun with the archetype, though when Del Toro and Travolta finally have a scene together–which one might expect to be the movie’s high point–it’s a scene that’s almost unwatchable due to their collective scenery chewing that crowns the third act problems that almost derail the movie entirely.

Even with the sometimes erratic performances, Stone brings a credibility to the material and how it’s handled, so you really believe a DEA agent like Dennis might actually exist, quirks and all. Another great thing about “Savages” is that you never know what’s going to happen next as the tension builds over the course of the second act as Ben and Chon try to get the money to buy O back from Elena. This is also where things start getting convoluted and the whole movie starts to lose steam, but it it builds up to what could have been an extremely grim ending, narrowly avoiding it by finding a novel way of throwing the viewer off with a last-minute twist that’s far more satisfying.

The Bottom Line:
In the hands of a less experienced director, “Savages” could have been an absolute mess. Instead, Stone creates a gritty and violent modern crime-thriller that’s both literary and lyrical at the same time, even if it’s plagued by Stone giving his actors too much freedom to overact.

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