Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Shane Salerno & Don Winslow & Oliver Stone based on the novel by Winslow.
Starring: Blake Lively (O), Taylor Kitsch (Chon), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ben), Salma Hayek (Elena), Benicio Del Toro (Lado), John Travolta (Dennis), Demian Bichir (Alex), Sandra Echeverria (Magdalena Sánchez), Emile Hirsch (Spin), Joaquín Cosio (El Azul), Mía Maestro (Dolores), Amber Dixon (Sophía), Shea Whigham (Chad).
I really wish Oliver Stone had more films like Savages in his filmography. This is a violent, sadistic little film – with no grand aspirations or political points to make, which is just straight ahead genre filmmaking at its finest. Stone really only attempted this early in his career – with films like Seizure (1974) and The Hand (1981)– and then again with U-Turn (1997), after a strong of more ambitious films. Every other film Stone has made has had some larger point to make – about modern American politics, social issues or something else. Savages doesn’t care about any of that – it is a straight ahead action film/thriller, about two pot dealers, the girl they love and the Mexican cartel they anger. The film may flirt with issues like medical marijuana, and illegal immigration (I think Donald Trump probably loves this movie), but it doesn’t bother with them. It’s just straight up, violent, stylistic filmmaking – and Stone handles it wonderfully. Watching it again recently, I have to admit two things about Savages – it is probably Stone’s least ambitious “late period” film (anything after Nixon) – but also the best of them.
The movie takes place in California, where two childhood best friends, who couldn’t possibly be any more different, make a lot of money selling the best pot around. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) was in the Marines, and brought back seeds from Afghanistan when he was fighting over there. Chon is violent, yet extremely loyal. His best friend Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) double majored in business and botany, and knows what to do with the seeds Chon has brought back, and how to build their illegal drug empire. If things need to get violent – Chon is there. But they don’t often get violent. Both of them are sleeping with O (Blake Lively), but there is no jealously there – they all now the arrangement, and like it. For her, the two men “make one complete man”. What precisely they see in her, I’m not sure – but that’s because the movie is told from her point-of-view, and doesn’t dwell on such questions.
Everyone knows Chon and Ben have the best pot – which is why they come to attention of a Mexican cartel, run by Elena (Salma Hayek), who sends her lawyer Demian Bichir) and enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to get Chon and Ben to join them – on a “three year contract”. Their DEA agent on the take, Dennis (John Travolta), tells them to take the deal – they’ll end up dead otherwise, but they don’t listen. They plan to run – so in retaliation, the Cartel kidnaps O to force their hand. Ben, and especially Chon, do not like this.
The violence in the movie is pervasive and strong, almost from the outset. Stone lets you know he is not messing around, and the film is probably second to only Natural Born Killers on his resume in terms of bloodshed. He see grainy videos of what precisely happens to people who anger the cartel – and then we get some live, not so grainy re-enactments of the same types of things. Stone has never been one to flinch at violence before, but even still, there are torture scenes in Savages that are pretty extreme, even for him. I don’t think this rises to the level of “torture porn” – because Stone isn’t getting off on these scenes, which are harsh and brutal, and he provides much needed context for them as well.
As Lado, Benicio Del Toro is essentially playing the opposite character as he did in his Oscar winning role in Steven Soderberg’s Traffic (2000). In that film, he was the one honest man in Mexico Law Enforcement. In Savages, he is perhaps the most amoral man in Mexico – a man who kills without thought or feeling, and will essentially betray anyone if he feels like it. It is a terrifying performance. Salma Hayek is his equal as Elena. In the best role Hayek has had in years, she is wonderful – ruthless and merciless in business, who still has a soft spot in her armor for her children (and grows one for the childlike O as well). Together they are brutal and unforgiving – even to each other – and lets you know from the start of the film that anything could happen here. Travolta is his old, swaggering, over-the-top self here, and it’s fun to see him relish a role this much again. Strangely these three – and some of the rest of the supporting cast – are far more interesting then the three central characters in the film. Lively’s performance as O in particular feels too passive, for someone who is essentially the central character in the film, even though she doesn’t do that much. Taylor Kitsch is all one note rage as Chon, which is what is asked of him, but still wears a little thin. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a little bit better as Ben, but not much.
Then again, part of the reason why the performances are one note, is performance the characters generally are as well. Savages is not a particularly original movie in any way, shape or form, and doesn’t even really play with the conventions of the genre. It is a straight up action thriller, which has style to spare. Yes, sometimes Stone goes a little too far over the top with the style (a giant clock superimposed over a tense car sequence when they’re on a deadline for example) – but when you’re moving at this speed, with this much action, a little over the top is forgivable. The ending is a little weak, because it strikes me as a copout – a way for Stone and company to have their cake and eat it too.
Still though, Savages is one of the more entertaining films Stone has ever made. Unlike much of his filmography, it isn’t trying to do anything more than what it does – it doesn’t strain for importance. At his best, Stone is able to make meticiously crafted, entertaining and important movies. But too often later in his career he sacrificed entertainment value for trying to be “important” or message making. There is none of that in Savages – which goes for the jugglar, and gets it. This may be Stone at his least ambitious – but it’s still at his most entertaining.