‘Savages’ – Oliver Stone Once Again Descends into a Realm of Drugs
WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2012. Some edits have been made since then to make it more interesting in the Ultimate Rabbit’s eyes.
“Savages” is being looked at as Oliver Stone’s comeback movie, as if it is implied that he hasn’t made one worth watching in years. Granted, movies like “World Trade Center,” “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” and even “W.” might have made it look like Stone was starting to get too soft on us, but none of these movies, however, showed him to be losing any of his power as a filmmaker. I guess we just miss him generating some kind of controversy because we all expect him to have some conspiracy he is just waiting to unleash on an unsuspecting populace.
Based on the book of the same name by Don Winslow, “Savages” shows Stone getting down and dirty again as the film deals with a couple of weed producers who, quite unfortunately, capture the attention of a brutal and greedy Mexican cartel. While it doesn’t reach the exhilarating highs of “Natural Born Killers” or “Scarface” (which he didn’t direct but wrote the screenplay to), it is still a compelling film to watch. However you look at it, Stone is not about to play it safe with the story or its characters this time around.
Blake Lively stars as O (short for Ophelia) who begins “Savages” by saying that just because she’s narrating the movie does not mean she will be alive at the end of it. Now this is a clever beginning as Stone teases us with the possibilities of what is to come, fully ready to rip the rug out from right under us if the occasion calls for it. These days, it is so nice to see any filmmaker, let alone one who has won several Oscars, take such risks these days.
O lives with her two boyfriends, former U.S. Navy SEAL Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and University of California at Berkeley graduate Ben (Aaron Johnson), both of whom happen to grow some of the best marijuana you could ever hope to inhale. They live their days in Laguna Beach, California which is so beautifully captured by cinematographer Dan Mindel to where I want to drive down there in a New York minute. Heck, I used to go to school near there!
Anyway, Chon and Ben receive a very cryptic message from the Baja Cartel which comes along with a video featuring beheaded drug dealers whom, like these two guys, were independent sellers. Basically, the cartel wants to go into business with them and take a cut of their profits. Chon and Ben, however, refuse to get involved with any cartel, and they make plans to move out of the country with O to another where they can stay for at least a year. But the head of the cartel, Elena Sánchez (Salma Hayek), believes these guys need to show her some respect, so she gets her henchmen to kidnap O in order to make them comply with her demands. But Chon and Ben are not about to let go of their O without a fight.
The movie’s title, “Savages,” makes me wonder who it is referring to among its cast of characters. It is tempting to think it refers to the Baja Cartel as they utilize horrific methods to get what they want, but it could really be referring to any of the characters we see here. Stone is examining just how far we can be pushed before we are forced to embrace our animalistic nature, and he gets at this horrifying truth of what violence we are all capable of when we get pushed to extremes.
“Savages” is far from original as its story may remind many of their favorite “Miami Vice” episodes. With a movie like this, I expected Stone to be pushing our buttons a little bit harder than he does here. But even though I came out of it feeling Stone could have gone even further with the violence, the action is still jolting and, at times, extremely graphic; one guy even finds one of his eyes hanging out of its socket during a moment of torture. Stone also utilizes his many ways of shooting which include black and white footage along with scenes of psychedelic power as characters find themselves under the influence either by choice or by force.
Now I don’t care what anybody says, Blake Lively is a good actress. Many seem to sneer whenever she is starring in a movie, but maybe this is because she was on “Gossip Girl,” a show I have never bothered to watch. Lively has to take her character of O from being a fun seeking woman to one who has to learn to live again, and she is excellent throughout. After her turn as a drug addicted single mother in Ben Affleck’s “The Town,” there should be zero doubt that she can act.
It has been a tough year thus far for Taylor Kitsch who has seen two big budget blockbusters he starred in, “John Carter” and “Battleship,” bomb hard at the box office. Then again, those movies probably would have bombed no matter who starred in them. With his role as Chon, he shows a toughness and attitude which is not easily faked, and you can see why so many were looking to cast him in their projects. Many actors yearn to play a ballbuster when given the opportunity, and Kitsch rises to the occasion and gives a terrific performance.
Aaron Johnson, who plays Chon’s more philosophical partner Ben, seems to have grown up a lot between this movie and “Kick Ass.” Once again, Johnson is playing a character who is eager prove himself and yet completely unaware of what that will take. From start to finish, he does an excellent job of transitioning his character from a peaceful man to a bloody defender of what he loves.
But leave it to some acting demigods to give “Savages” its potent power which nails us right into our seats. Benicio Del Toro is brilliant as the sociopathic henchman Lado. Like the most entertaining cinematic sociopaths, Lado is at times charming while more often menacing and extremely sick. He thinks nothing of killing people when the opportunity presents itself, and Del Toro looks to be having a blast as he explores the different facets of his character’s twisted personality.
And then there’s Salma Hayek who singes the screen as drug queen Elena Sánchez. All Hayek has to do is give the audience one look, and you know this is a person you do not want to mess with. She also gets a surprisingly complex character to play as Elena’s ascent to being a big-time drug dealer had more to do with tragedy than it did with opportunity.
“Savages” also features strong performances from John Travolta as a corrupt DEA agent, Emile Hirsch as the money launderer Spin, and Demián Bichir as one of Elena’s representatives, Alex. There is not a single weak performance to be found here as everyone looks to be as thrilled as can be to be acting in an Oliver Stone movie.
Now there has been some controversy over the movie’s ending as it offers up two very different conclusions. The way it comes across reminded me of when Michael Haneke got one of his characters to grab a remote control to reverse and alter the events in “Funny Games.” Both directors are looking to mess with our heads. While the fates of the characters are not entirely resolved, it was worth seeing things turn out the way they did as some end up getting very clever about the situations they are trapped in.
Is “Savages” classic Oliver Stone? Not quite, but it is certainly more potent and energetic than some of his other recent work. Give him the right story, and he can still give you a cinematic experience like few others can.
* * * ½ out of * * * *