In Savages, three beautiful young people naively think they can have it all. They make a fortune off of being able to grow marijuana with unheard-of HTC levels (think Walter White if he looked good in his underwear). Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) attempt the impossible in building an illegal empire that distributes this narcotic that can function with practically zero violence and otherwise nasty behavior – and all along, they share one girlfriend between them (Blake Lively).
Of course, things don’t work out that easily. A Mexican drug cartel catches wind of their success, and everything falls to pieces.
That’s the story onscreen, but it feels relevant to what went down in the creation of the film. Director Oliver Stone has managed to put together a successful and sunny drug violence movie that’s a lot of fun to watch. But when he tries to have it all and throw in more artful statements, his it almost collapses.
Fans of 60 MPH, saturated violence capers (Smokin’ Aces, Crank) are going to find themselves surprisingly satisfied by this Oliver Stone joint. Stone is best known for having a politcal bent to most of his work – he did direct two films named after and about Presidents, after all. So it can be easy to forget that he’s also responsible less civilly minded work such as Natural Born Killers – he even wrote Brian de Palma’s Scarface and Conan the Barbarian.
Savages definitely takes after those latter films. It opens with two (2) sex scenes, one almost immediately following the first. Not much later, Chon and Ben meet with an only-kind-of-whacky John Travolta (who feels out of place in all his scenes) who advises them to let a Mexican drug mafia hire the boys out. When the meeting with their friends from south of the border doesn’t go as smoothly as they had hoped, our beautiful young trio gear up and prepare themselves for war.
This is where Savages works – when it’s just an oddball couple of friends, with their wide net of acquaintances and their disparate talents, could maybe – just maybe – take down a drug cartel, or at least seriously fuck it up.
What’s weird about Savages is that it cares more about the hardened foreign criminals than the much-more-innocent protagonists (the white people). The drug cartel is headed up by the soft but deadly strict Elena (Salma Hayek), who isn’t bothered by the notion of having people brutally murdered, but is thrown off by an over-sold desire for a good relationship with her estranged daughter. Then there’s Benicio del Toro as Lado, a character completely devoid of redeeming traits or last-minute redemptions. Only an actor with as much natural charisma as del Toro could make this character work, on page he’s nothing more than an overwritten force of evil.
That’s in contrast to Ben and Chon – they hold an interesting dichotomy (one a smart hippie, the other a single-mindset Afghanistan Vet, both best friends), but nothing of note is ever achieved. Then there’s Lively’s character, who behaves in ways only a spoiled sorority girl could relate to – and that’s before her awful awful narration that runs over the first fifteen minutes.
Savages‘ cons can be swallowed when considered alongside its pulpy pros – you don’t need sharp character work to work as a dead-red drug shootout. Where Savages drops the ball is when it strives for greater significance. Taking on both the Drug War and the Class War, Stone’s adaptation of Don Winslow’s book never figures out anything to say that doesn’t come off with the sophistication and subtlety of a fourteen-year-old. Crime lords and DEA agents are just players on different teams, and the good guys turn into bad guys, we are preached, and we should question our very lives because of it. None of it necessarily ruins the guilty pleasures of Savages, but it sure does make the movie a lot more stupid than it’s mindless core should have been.