In one of the most memorable and quotable lines from South Park, Mr. Mackey tells the class that “drugs are bad, mkay“. But that’s an understatement because in the drug world, whether you’re the dealer or the user, illegal dealings always seem to end in tears. In Savages, Oliver Stone brings to the table one highly combustible cast to deliver his adaptation of Don Winslow’s novel of the same name. A story that’s as complicated as the actual war on drugs it’s a sordid tale, one more colorful and breezier than Steven Soderbergh’s similarly themed film Traffic, but delivered with Stone’s unflinching style that’s become his trademark.
Marijuana growers Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are living the good life. That is until their highly profitable lifestyle of cultivating and selling primo weed causes them to receive an ominous e-mail from Mexican drug cartel who wants a piece of their profit. Whether the Laguna Beach duo agree with the terms or not, the friends find they can’t refuse and are forced into doing business with the most unsavory of people. Yet before they accept terms, they decide to alter the deal much to the disapproval of the cartel who kidnapped their shared girlfriend Ophelia (Blake Lively) to level the playing field. But Ben and Chon are not some hashed out deadbeats, nor are they pushovers, and will do whatever it takes to O back. They say you have to be cruel to be kind, but in Ben and Chon’s case to be good, sometimes you have to be bad, savage even.
Don Winslow’s novel weaves a complex plot with scores of characters that are mostly against type and Stone’s A-list cast does a very fine job with the material. Similar to Elmore Leonard’s intricate and interweaving plots, Savages doesn’t sit still and Stone moves swift enough to keep interest and tension high. He blends humor with pain, tragedy with triumph and certainly keeps the film from being one note. There’s something good about seeing a director getting back in his groove only Savages, feels like a story meant to engage a slightly younger audience (Blake Lively not withstanding) like the CW set.
The story about these young friends/hotshot drug dealers who find themselves being muscled around by an unseen Cartel King, or Queen rather, effectively show how their characters are pushed to the limits. Things continue to keep pace just fine until about the halfway mark where the focus shifts from our heroes, if you can call them that, to the side characters Benicio Del Toro, John Travolta and cartel queen Salma Hayek. It’s a lot for a 2 hour film but things never lag, too long anyway, and as expected when Stone gets fierce the intensity practically comes through the screen. Like we’ve seen before, Stone takes us through the paces that flip-flops between being exhilarating and playful. He keeps things moving very swiftly and there’s almost a music video cadence to it. Everything has an unshakably 90’s feel to it (which really makes it feel like an Oliver Stone film is that make sense) but outweighing the visuals is the solid and engaging dialog.
The all-star cast is well suited to their roles. Kitsch gets a fairer shake than John Carter and Battleship and might be the best work he’s done yet. Similarly, Johnson shows the same likability as he did in Kick-Ass but also brings notable weight and emotion. Lively has the job of narrating and playing the damsel in distress. She does as much as she can with it but she’s far from a standout because Benicio Del Toro has that honor locked up tight. His despicable personality (Hayek’s right-hand with ulterior motives), allegiance-to-no-one attitude and odd sense of humor make him both simultaneously off-putting and magnetic. With a Burt Reynolds inspired hairdo and mustache, he looks to have had such trashy fun with this role right up to the very end (in an ending that may not satisfy a lot of theater goers).
One refreshing element to Savages, perhaps the most refreshing actually, is that we’re not given a hot-headed drug-lord like Tony Montana, but instead a reserved antagonist. Elena “La Reina” Sanchez Lauter, the leader of the Baja Cartel, (played by Salma Hayek) must deal with rival drug gangs and potential overthrow from within. Though calling her an antagonist isn’t exactly accurate, she’s just a hard-edged business woman whose commodity happens to be an incendiary (pun intended) and highly marketable plant. Hayek brings a reserved but still very lethal delivery to her character and the skewed surrogate mother angle (to the kidnapped Lively) shows more depth than you’d expect from a drug kingpin. It’s odd but original and the dynamic gives her some depth, yet like Del Toro, she could have benefited from more development. It’s almost worth checking out the novel to see how her character is treated with more running room.
This is vintage Oliver Stone giving us an edgy, hard-hitting film that is sure to be a return to form for the Oscar-winning writer/director. Without reading the novel that inspired this, it’s impossible to tell how many liberties were taken but it’s still a solid ride that like other Stone films is as much entertainment as it is a social commentary. However, just like other Stone films we’re given a glimpse into a lifestyle (drug-lord, rock god, serial killer, NFL super-star, NAM vet, President, et al) that few will ever understand. Either way, it’s compelling, well acted and just one scary ride.