Synopsis: Pot growers Ben and Chon face off against the Mexican drug cartel who kidnapped their shared girlfriend.
Stars: Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro
Director: Oliver Stone
Running Length: 131 minutes
Random Crew Highlight: Sun Worshiper (uncredited) ~ Olesya Grushko
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Like walking toward a sleeping bear, one has to approach an Oliver Stone film with caution. If you wake the beast you may end up with a head tripp-y nightmare like Natural Born Killers or if you pass it quietly you could find yourself with a snore-fest like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. However, if you play your cards right you may find yourself eye to eye with a film that strikes a good balance between classic Stone and crazy Stone. Savages achieves just that balance by giving us the raw seediness that Stone isn’t afraid to show with dynamic storytelling that has been at the core of his most successful pictures.
Stone optioned the movie rights before novelist Don Winslow’s work was even finished…so you know he saw something in it that attracted his eye. Stone has always gravitated toward either the upper echelon or the gutter dwellers but with Savages he seems to have found a meeting of the minds between the two classes. Yes, our central characters are drug dealers who favor flip flops and board shorts to expensive suits…but their business acumen and drive create the perfect combination to rival any tycoon.
Chon (Kitsch) and Ben (Johnson) are two California surf dudes that have hit upon a perfect marijuana seed that creates a top of the line product. Their huge success attracts the attention of a Tijuana cartel queenpin (Hayek) who dispatches the killer Lado (Del Toro) to not only bring the men into business with them but mine their growing expertise. In the middle of this mix is Ben and Chon’s shared girlfriend, O (Lively), who becomes a unwitting pawn in these nasty and deadly dealings.
The film hits the ground jogging at a leisurely pace with O narrating the history of how they all came to know one another. She announces early on, “Just because I’m narrating this story doesn’t mean I’ll be alive at the end.” which gives you a good idea how far the movie will go to keep you off kilter and unsure of what will happen next.
The whole concept that Chon and Ben share boyfriend responsibilities with O is a plot point that’s not so hard to believe with the way that it is presented. You can tell that there are no jealousy issues or miscommunications – it’s simply the way things are. It’s a scenario that has worked out for the three and it’s only when business is brought in that loyalties are called into question. One character points out that Ben and Chon must have the most love for each other…at least enough to share the object of their affections.
The darker side of the movie comes in its extreme violence. While it never veers into Saw territory there is enough blood and dismembered body parts to whet the whistle of viewers that like their violence stylish but raw. There is also a tendency to not just stop at stabbing someone but shooting them for good measure. A copious amount of blood is shed but it’s on display without the glorification that Stone has put into other films.
Stone and cinematographer Daniel Mindel create a jittery feel and use color wisely to set a mood for whatever situation we are in. Scenes of heavy drug use make way for slow camera moves while action sequences are shot guerilla-style. When two characters sit down for a tense meal the camera moves sharply to create and define the perimeter of the dinner table. Extreme close-ups are a Stone staple and he’s toned it down here…he’s more interested in the eyes and finds interesting ways to feature them.
Our three leads are an appealing bunch of young Hollywood types that do admirable work here. Lively replaced Jennifer Lawrence (who opted to do a little movie called The Hunger Games instead) and she successfully distances herself from Gossip Girl…though she’s already proved herself with a strong performance in 2010’s The Town. Kitsch has had an up and down year. John Carter was an underappreciated winner while he sunk Battleship with his poor performance. Here he’s the weak link again but does show some chops as a gritty action star. Brit Johnson is showcased well and winds up the best of the trio by creating a peace and love character that gradually realizes the dark places he’ll need to go to survive.
Del Toro and Travolta (as a drug enforcement agent) also do nice work…maybe it’s Travolta embracing his receding hairline and Del Toro realizing he didn’t really deserve that Oscar for Traffic…but both men are in the game and on the ball with believably flawed characters.
For me, the movie stars and ends with Hayek’s brilliant turn as the leader of a Mexcian drug cartel that may just be on its last legs. She’s cool as a margarita when she wants to be but can turn on a dime. Her dressing down of Del Toro halfway through the film is worth the price of admission and that particular scene tells you everything you need to know about her character. With her razor sharp bangs and knowing gaze she’s a Tarantino villainess without the Tarantino self-awareness. Hayek needs to do work like this more often and Stone has given her a great and meaty role she devours with aplomb.
Savages was not the typical Stone fare that I went in thinking it was. It’s a superior adult-oriented film that’s made for grown-ups and treats its audience like we are mature and thoughtful movie-goers. So OK, maybe it falters a bit in the final reel but the tricks it plays didn’t make me turn my back on what had come before. I wouldn’t say that Stone has dialed back his style of filmmaking but he’s taken a new approach to the presentation of the material. It’s a strong film with fully realized performances – a movie that was needed and appreciated.