Not even fifteen minutes into “Savages”—Oliver Stone’s stylish and rough around the edges new movie—we get gory executions, the glamorous California coastline and drug fueled orgies. He brings on the extremities and intensities early on and as the film continues on only amps it further. Not afraid of a little sex and violence. That sounds like something Stone would do.
Not the recent Stone (who’s done overly political movies like “W,” “World Trade Center,” or the boring costume epic “Alexander”).“Savages” feels more in tune with the Stone who did dark and controversial films like “Platoon,” “Salvador,” “The Doors” and “Natural Born Killers.” “Savages” is an intelligent, sexy, lurid, hard-boiled crime drama. Stone’s direction is sleek, quick paced (Stone uses a lot of quick cutting). The screenplay by Shane Salerno, Stone and Don Winslow (based on his novel) is intricately plotted and full of typical Stone-esque dialogue that’s both tough and amusing. It has the look and feel of a crime drama you might see in the eighties or nineties.
The subject at hand is a drugs, particularly marijuana. The story revolves around Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), who grow and sell pot out of (where else?) California. And according to the movie it’s the best damn pot around.
At the beginning Stone touches briefly (perhaps too briefly) on the origin of their “business.” For them it started on the sunbaked beaches of California; one day it occurred to them that in order to have the best weed business they need the best seeds and the best seeds grow in Afghanistan. So, while Chon was over in Iraq doing a tour of duty he smuggled back a whole bunch.
Chon is the buff and tatted up aggressive one, who’s willing to beat up or kill anyone who isn’t paying up (mainly petty users) while Ben is the skinny, long haired, bearded softy, who partly served in the Peace Corp. It’s a strange pairing but it’s also the perfect combo: Chon is the tough and mean enforcer and Ben in the passive sensitive pot head who mostly specializes in the biology behind the business. Also thrown in the mix is Ophelia or “O” as she’s called (played by a gentle Blake Lively) who’s sort of a communal girlfriend. They make it work.
It’s a fairly cush life (no pun intended) but beneath all of the money, gorgeous beaches, hot sex and pot smoke lies the seedy and dangerous underworld of drug trafficking. Specifically the Baja cartel, a vicious cartel that operates out of Mexico and across the border. They’ve heard about the two and their successful business enterprise and they want a piece. And they mean serious business. They make a video, featuring those aforementioned gory executions and send it to Chon and Ben as an invitation for the two outlets to chat. The first member we meet is a high up enforcer, Lado (a wonderfully hardened and menacing Benicio Del Toro) who we see, in a previous scene, kill two rich drug users that owe money.
Ben and Chon think they can outsmart the cartel by stalling their answer and trying to run off to Indonesia but the cartel catches on to them and kidnap O.
Ben and Chon may have the best blow on the block but they’re still a small operation. Also, for how smart they may be in growing the cash crop they’re naive and a little delusional when it comes to the selling. They’re caught up in a fantasy of paradise and peace. They want to live on the beach in their nice house, they want to smoke lots of dope and have sex with their hot and generous girlfriend but when it comes to the cartel, there’s no messing around and in order to save O they have to get real and box with the big boys. For Chon that means keeping his cool under pressure and for Ben, bucking up and committing violent acts.
Meanwhile, there are more obstacles Ben and Chon have to navigate their way through, such as Elena (Salma Hayek), the godfather (or should I say: godmother) of the cartel and Dennis, a crooked DEA agent who works for both Ben and Chon and Elena--played by a flamboyant John Travolta. Hayek gives a resilient and confident performance. It’s nice to see a strong female antagonist in this boy’s club and one that can show up the males. There’s a fantastic scene in which she tells off Lado and another cartel member after Ben and Chon steal three million dollars from them. Next to Del Toro she gives the best performance in the movie.
It should be said that this movie isn’t for the faint of heart. It can be excessively violent. Most of the time you don’t know where it comes from, sort of like in “Drive.” I admit that I cringed at some scenes. Sometimes Stone is subtle about it (he doesn’t directly show O being kidnapped), other times it’s done in a sort of comic vein (when Chon impulsively stabs Dennis in the leg) and then it can be outright blunt and grisly, like in the scene where a cartel member is framed for being a police informant by Ben and Chon and is gruesomely tortured. It may be hard to stomach but it gives the picture some unexpected punch and energy.
The movie does have some flaws, most notably is the narration by O. I didn’t mind it at the very beginning, when it introduced the characters but it happens all throughout, to the point of irritation. Also the ending is strange. You don’t see it coming yes, but I’m not sure if it works. Unfortunately I can’t say much else about it without spoiling.
But those issues don’t totally get in the way of my overall like of the film. It’s high energy and exhilarating to watch and Stone pulls it off with style, wit and violence.