by Justin Jasso
This summer has gotten off to a great start with films like The Avengers, The Amazing Spiderman, and Ted, amongst others. The one thing these films did not have is that raw savagery which can be located (without the use of GPS) in Oliver Stone’s new film, Savages. Take a dash of brutality, a few scoops of reality, a pinch of understanding and a whole heap of drugs and you’ll have one of the more gritty films of the year.
Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are mismatched drug dealers. Chon, a veteran of several tours in Afghanistan, is a cold killer who thinks nothing of putting a bullet into the head of someone who double-crosses him. Ben, on the other hand, is a pacifist who follows Buddhist teachings and uses his share of the profits to fund overseas philanthropic enterprises. Both men are in love with Ophelia (Blake Lively), and she is in love with them. The trio live together in a state of domestic bliss, where threesomes are regular occurrences and everything occurs through a haze of marijuana smoke.
Ben and Chon’s brand is in great demand due to its high percentage of THC (primary psychoactive ingredient). A Mexican cartel, led by crime lord Elena (Salma Hayek), wants to “partner” with Ben and Chon. She sends her lawyer, Alex (Demian Bichir), to secure the deal. Ben and Chon are split over whether the “partnership” is a good idea. After consulting with a corrupt DEA agent (John Travolta), they decide to spurn the offer. Unwilling to let go of the opportunity, Elena unleashes the dogs. She sends in psychopath Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap Ophelia, and that’s only the first third of the film.
Savages is a drug-fueled crime roller coaster that doesn’t break much new ground in the genre but offers a volatile concoction of violence, heroism, and amorality that is very watchable. The screenplay has its share of twists and turns, but none are of the sort that stretch believability, and there are individual scenes in which the degree of suspense and tension escalates to edge-of-seat levels.
From an acting standpoint, Blake Lively convinces us that she doesn’t have what it takes to play this sort of a role; she lacks the chops to carry the elements of the movie in which she is expected to dominate. It’s hard to accept that her Ophelia is the kind of sex goddess muse who inspires men to kill or to die. We feel the connection between Taylor Kitsch’s Chon and Aaron Johnson’s Ben. These two have a full-fledged “bromance,” but the same degree of chemistry is not evident between either of these men and Lively. Her most convincing scene is one in which she shares a meal with Salma Hayek. John Travolta is Savages‘ highest profile actor, but his role is secondary and his performance isn’t anything you’d write home about. The scene-stealer is Benicio Del Toro who is frighteningly good as the sociopath Lado… but really, when is Benecio Del Toro not good??
Thematically, Savages shows us how even the most calm and Zen person can be spurred by primal instincts when the situation dictates as much. Don’t misunderstand, this is not a deeply philosophical film by any means, it appeals on a visceral level. The ending may generate a degree of dissatisfaction with some viewers; it can be seen as either a brilliant case of misdirection or a cheat. It’s not necessary but it adds flair to the resolution. I would have enjoyed the movie without it, personally.
As with any film, Savages isn’t without its flaws. There are moments when expository seems to drag a little too long or Lively is convincing us that her character has no depth, but overall it’s a film that has character and a raw savagery that you don’t see every day, at least in a quality film. It’s certainly not like Stone’s more recent films (Wall Street, W), which is a good thing. Savages has a feel much more like Stone’s 1994 hit, Natural Born Killers… funny enough, Savages contains a few natural born killers in itself.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars