Oliver Stone’s Savages is a violent, gritty, and realistic suspense story with a brain. Don’t walk into this one expecting to see a typical R-rated thriller with over-the-top action and chuckle-inducing one-liners. This story matters more: it’s meaty, addictive stuff to watch. Stone treats the material in a mature way that’s not without hints of humor, but also not without beheadings, either.
In Southern California, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are business partners in the field of marijuana. Business is good. The aptly named Ben & Chon’s serves up the purest dope on both sides of the border, due to the Afghani cannabis seeds they grow.
The seeds were transplanted by Chon, who’s done tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chon’s a war junkie. His mind never left the battlefield, and he’s not afraid to dispense with some gun barrel justice when Ben & Chon’s is messed with by the competition. He’s controlled and calm on the surface, but a cold, calculating fury roams beneath his exterior image, always ready to lash out with lethal intentions.
Ben is a gentler soul. He thinks Buddha was a wise man and tries to follow the Buddhist philosophy. A whiz kid with botany and business (both of which he majored in at Berkley), Ben has built a network of marijuana farms with growers he can trust. He’s friendly and up-close with his client base, giving Ben & Chon’s a cult status for not only having the best marijuana, but also the best customer service. It also helps that the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) stays off their backs thanks to the greedy agent Dennis (John Travolta) whom the boys have bribed to look the other way.
Outside the office, Ben and Chon are also best friends. Opposites attract. Oh, and they both sleep with the same woman: the blonde beach babe Ophelia (Blake Lively), or as she simply likes to be called, O. Yes, they both know they have a sexual relationship with the same woman, and they are cool with it. That’s when you know your friendship is solid…or demented. It depends how you look at it. Anyway, the three twentysomethings are a family. They live together in harmony in a multimillion-dollar house overlooking Laguna Beach: postcard cover territory. Life is good.
But it’s about to get messy. The bad thing about operating a drug business in So Cal is that pesky Mexican drug cartels are literally right behind you location-wise. And they might bite your ass. Hard.
That’s exactly what the Mexican Baja Cartel intends to do to Ben and Chon after they refuse to be absorbed into their corporation, which is pushing north in a last-ditch effort to stay relevant. The leader of the Baja Cartel is a woman named Elena (Salma Hayek). She’s inherited the business and kept it alive through rigid discipline. Having her business proposal refused is like being spat in the eye. To show she won’t tolerate any attitude, she has her right-hand-man Lado (Benicio Del Toro) kidnap and imprison O.
The family is broken. The boys get angry. Things get out of hand.
After the kidnapping occurs, Stone’s near-perfect story (it drags a little in the first 30 minutes) gets perfect. Screenwriters Shane Salerno, Don Winslow (who wrote the novel of the same name that the movie is based on), and Oliver Stone craft a compelling crime drama that is complex without being confusing, silly but stern, and compellingly tragic. So many characters are capable of violence; we know it’s only a matter of time before the big bloody climax goes down. But Ben and Chon don’t just strike back at the Cartel with guns and RPGs. They use their brains and resources, too.
One such resource is their bike-loving buddy Spin (Emile Hirsch), an independent money launderer. Spin goes after the Baja Cartel with false bank accounts and money washing, explaining things as he goes along so the audience doesn’t just sit through scenes of mindless keyboard tapping. Little gestures of explanation go a long way. Stone understands this and as a result, he never wastes your time.
Stone’s underlying theme, which also exists in Winslow’s fabulous book, is that everyone can have a savage side. A man like Lado, who sometimes does business by shooting a man’s kneecaps, looks at Ben and Chon’s shared romance with O and thinks they are barbaric, even as he wipes blood on his jeans.
Stone doesn’t settle for just showing the evil in his characters, though. He also shows their gentler, everyday sides. We even get intimate with the villains. The widowed, lonely Elena likes to watch black-and-white romances while wishing her daughter would call more often. Lado enjoys watching his teenage son pitch in Little League games. Dennis’s wife is dying of cancer, and he has two girls to take care of. These people aren’t inherently mean; they just do bad things sometimes because of the situations they find themselves in (although Lado sure does seem to relish torturing people). The people are real, the violence is real, and therefore the story is relatable, plausible, and downright delightful to watch.
Just to handpick two mesmerizing performances out of the hat: Taylor Kitsch and John Travolta. Kitsch’s character isn’t much of a talker, so his body language has to speak for itself. Kitsch smirks, snarls, and shrugs his way to a great portrayal of a war veteran with some baggage. Kevin Smith always says that acting is in the eyes, and Kitsch’s eyes have a lot to say. Travolta’s scenes are worth the price of admission. His character is a talker and a schemer, and has to use both skills to stay alive. Snaky, sarcastic, and convincing, Travolta steals the show when he’s on camera.
See Savages for its colorful characters and horrifying reality.
I give it 4.5 stars out of 5, an A-.
Savages is rated R, has a runtime of 2 hours and 9 minutes, and was given a wide release in United States theaters on July 6, 2012.