“Savages” is being looked at as Oliver Stone’s comeback movie, as if he hasn’t made one worth watching in years. Granted, movies like “World Trade Center,” “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” and even “W.” made it look like Stone was being too nice, but none of those movies however showed him to be losing his power as a director. I guess we just miss him generating some kind of controversy to be witnessed on the big screen.
“Savages,” based on the book by Don Winslow, shows Stone getting down and dirty again as the movie deals with a couple of weed producers who, unfortunately for them, capture the attention of a brutal and greedy Mexican cartel. The movie doesn’t reach the exhilarating highs of Stone’s other movies like “Natural Born Killers” or “Scarface” (which he didn’t direct but wrote the screenplay to), but it’s still a compelling film to watch. Whether you think the movie is among his best work or not, Stone doesn’t play it safe with the story or its characters this time around.
Blake Lively stars as O (short for Ophelia) who begins “Savages” by saying that just because she’s narrating the movie doesn’t mean she’ll be alive at the end of it. It’s a clever start as Stone teases us with the possibilities of what is to come, fully ready to take the rug out from under us if the occasion calls for it. It’s nice to see any movie director attempting that today.
O lives with her two boyfriends, former U.S. Navy SEAL Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and University of California at Berkeley graduate Ben (Aaron Johnson), who also happen to grow some of the best pot you can smoke. They live their days in Laguna Beach, California which is so beautifully captured by cinematographer Dan Mindel that it makes me wonder how long it’s been since I’ve gone down there.
Anyway, Chon and Ben get a very cryptic message from the Baja Cartel which comes along with a video featuring beheaded drug dealers which, like these two guys, were independent sellers. Basically, the cartel wants to go into business with them and take a cut of their profits. Chon and Ben however refuse to get involved with any cartel, and they make plans to move out of the country with O for a year or so. But the head of the cartel, Elena Sánchez (Salma Hayek), believes these guys need to show her some respect, so she gets her henchmen to kidnap O to make them comply with her demands. But Chon and Ben are not about to let go of their O without a fight.
The movie’s title, “Savages,” makes you wonder who it refers to among its characters. It’s tempting to think that it refers to the Baja Cartel as they utilize horrific methods to get what they want, but it could really be referring to any of the characters. Stone is examining just how far we can be pushed before we are forced to embrace our animalistic nature, and he gets at that horrifying truth of what violence we are all capable of when we get pushed to our extremes.
“Savages” is far from original as its story will likely remind many of their favorite episodes of “Miami Vice.” With a movie like this, we might expect Stone to be pushing our buttons a little bit harder than he does here. But even though you come out of it feeling that Stone could have gone even farther with the violence, the action is jolting and at times extremely graphic; one guy even finds one of his eyes hanging out of its socket during a moment of torture. Stone also utilizes his many ways of shooting from black and white footage to scenes of psychedelic power as characters find themselves under the influence either by choice or by force.
Now I don’t care what anybody says, Blake Lively is a good actress. Many seem to sneer whenever she’s in a movie, but maybe that’s because she’s on “Gossip Girl;” a show I’ve never watched. Lively has to take her character of O from being a fun seeking woman to one who has to learn to live again, and she is excellent throughout. After her turn as a drug addicted single mother in Ben Affleck’s “The Town,” there should be zero doubt that she can act.
It’s been a tough year thus far for Taylor Kitsch who has seen two big budget blockbusters he starred in, “John Carter” and “Battleship,” bomb at the box office. Then again, those movies probably would have bombed no matter who starred in them. With his role as Chon, he shows a toughness and attitude that is not easily faked, and you can see why so many movie studios were looking to cast him. Many actors yearn to play a ballbuster when given the opportunity, and Kitsch rises to the occasion while giving a terrific performance.
Aaron Johnson, who plays Chon’s more philosophical partner Ben, seems to have grown up a lot between this movie and “Kick Ass.” Once again, Johnson is playing a character who is eager prove himself and yet completely unaware of what that will take. From start to finish, he does an excellent job of transitioning his character from a peaceful man to a bloody defender of what he loves.
But leave it to some acting demigods to give this movie its potent power which nails us right into our seats. Benicio Del Toro is brilliant as the sociopathic henchman Lado. Like the most entertaining sociopaths we see in movies, Lado is at times charming while more often menacing and extremely sick. He thinks nothing of killing people when the opportunity presents itself, and Del Toro looks to be having a blast as he explores the different facets of this character’s twisted personality.
And then there’s Salma Hayek who singes the screen as drug queen Elena Sánchez. All Hayek has to do is give the audience one look, and you know this is a person you do not want to mess with. She also gets a surprisingly complex character to play as Elena’s ascent to being a big time drug dealer had more to do with tragedy than it did with opportunity.
“Savages” also features strong performances from John Travolta as a corrupt DEA agent, Emile Hirsch as the money launderer Spin, and Demián Bichir as one of Elena’s representatives Alex. There isn’t a single weak performance to be found here as everyone looks to be as thrilled as can be to be acting in an Oliver Stone movie.
There has been some controversy over the movie’s ending as it offers up two very different conclusions. The way it’s presented reminded me of when Michael Haneke got one of his characters to grab a remote control to reverse and alter the events in “Funny Games;” both directors are looking to mess with our heads. While the fates of characters are not entirely resolved, it was worth seeing things turn out the way they did as certain characters end up getting very clever about the situations they are in.
Is “Savages” classic Oliver Stone? Not quite, but it is certainly more potent energetic than some of the films he has made in recent years. Give him the right story, and he can still give you a cinematic experience like few others can.
* * * ½ out of * * * *