There was a time when a new Oliver Stone film was an occasion. A moment of cultural note, scandal or a mixture of both that sometimes obscured the film itself. While the days of Platoon, Natural Born Killers or JFK are a long time ago, there is still a certain frisson whenever the maverick director releases a new flick.
Savages is Stone’s adaptation of the book of the same name by Don Winslow, a fast-paced thriller set in the world of drug dealing on the California-Mexico border.
Kitsch and Taylor-Johnson star as bffs Chon and Ben. One a war-hardened ex-marine, the other a college graduate, the pair are the most unlikely driving force behind a massive and socially positive drugs operation, growing and supplying California and beyond with incredibly high quality marajuana.
Applying a hippy mindset to their endeavour, Ben’s botany and business degrees handle the day-to-day affairs of, ahem, farming, while Chon is the quiet and tightly wound fallback when business gets… uncivilized.
Business is booming and even the law is kept onside as the pair keep a cop in their pocket, DEA agent Denis (John Travolta).
Problems seem to be kept at a minimum as the two surf bums spend whatever time they have free running a charity in Africa, looking out for their employees or tending to their, yes their, girlfriend O (Blake Lively).
A lot of care has been put into making the lads the sorts of drug dealers you can root for. Nice chaps with education and time spent in service to their nation. It’s necessary for what comes after their introduction as things turn sour when La Reina Elena (Salma Hayek), a drug queen from Mexico makes the lads an offer of partnership they can’t refuse.
Only they do. Initially at least.
Unfortunately for them anything other than 110% submission is unacceptable for La Reina and she orders O kidnapped, to be held for a year or two contingent on the lads’ good behaviour.
What follows is not the riotous rampage of revenge you might expect of a lesser movie.
Instead things unfold with at least a veneer of realism as a small, relatively non-violent organisation bumps up against the might of an international cartel with a history and capacity for brutality and depravity.
Ben and Chon cross wits with Elena and her lieutenant north of the border, Lado (Benicio Del Toro) – a particularly despicable and dangerous turd in an ocean of human detritus – trying to protect their business interests and save their girl while maintaining the appearance of being under La Reina’s stilletto.
The best bro vibe between Kitsch and Taylor-Johnson and their relationship with Lively is the core of Savages and, to their credit, the three bring more to the roles than their perfect cheekbones and chiselled abs.
After a faltering start in blockbusters, Kitsch’s intensity and the promise he showed in the Friday Night Lights series is finally used appropriately and he is well-balanced by the non-cartoonish hippy of Taylor-Johnson. Lively is the glue that binds the two fellas and, as her role in The Town also showed, the Gossip Girl alum has legitimate acting chops.
As is so often the way, however, the younger generation are far overshadowed by the more senior members of the cast with Hayek, Travolta and Del Toro in particular stealing every scene they’re in.
As the queen of crime south of the border, Hayek is in turn vicious and maternal, worrying about her estranged daughter while terrorizing her minions. Her scenes with Del Toro’s Lado are especially gratifying given the actor’s excellent job in making the lieutenant about as contemptible a dirtbag as has been seen onscreen in a while. Seeing the hulking thug get dressed down by his pint-sized boss is almost worth the price of admission on its own.
Oliver Stone’s films often get burdened with a sense of undue importance as though everything he does is supposed to be of massive social or political importance.
Savages is not an important film. Don Winslow’s book may have aspired to some significance or depth of social commentary, but Stone’s adaptation doesn’t.
It’s a dark pulpy thriller with some good performances that lets its plot gets away from it a bit towards the end but, all in all, provides a popcorn-munching good time. It’s far from Stone’s finest but it’s a good time nonetheless.