It takes some obvious narrative shortcuts and contains a nearly unforgivable fake-out climax, but Oliver Stone's “Savages” is the director's most engaged and energetic film in many years. This hard-boiled, blood-soaked melodrama about love and revenge among drug merchants maintains a nasty tension level and gives its actors all the scenery they can chew.
Chon and Ben (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) are best friends who made a fortune selling the most popular and potent marijuana in Southern California, a bumper crop grown from seeds Chon brought back after his tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Ben is the sensitive, altruistic humanist who wants to parlay their fortune into sustainable energy and charitable acts, while Chon is the muscle of the operation and perfectly happy with maintaining status quo.
The spoils of success include a sprawling oceanfront mansion in Laguna Beach and the devotion of rich Orange County beach girl Ophelia (Blake Lively), who goes by “O” and is completely committed to this conflict-free love triangle. But then the Baja Cartel comes calling with a business proposal that is more like a shakedown. Chon and Ben reject the deal proposed by the advance team (Demian Bichir and Antonio Jaramillo) and make plans to skip the country, but then the cartel led by the elegant and ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek) attempts to force the boys' hands by kidnapping O.
“Savages” is an apt title, an epithet that nearly everyone uses against one another, including Elena's chief enforcer Ludo (Benicio Del Toro) and crooked drug enforcement agent Dennis (John Travolta). Stone and fellow screenwriters Shane Salerno and Don Winslow create a queasy balance of savagery and amorality between Elena and her American competition as Chon and Ben begin to fight on the same vicious level as the cartel. Obviously, Elena and her underlings are the aggressors, but everyone gets dragged into the viscera.
What keeps “Savages” from total success is an oppressive voice-over by Lively that is laden with cheesy portent and mixed-bag literary references that seem too worldly for the character — it feels as tacked on as Harrison Ford's postproduction “Blade Runner” narration. And then Stone deploys the aforementioned plot switcheroo at the climax: viewers who have seen either version of “Funny Games” will recognize the technique as a variation on what Michael Haneke did in those films, and identify it as a big-time cop-out.
But beyond these problems, “Savages” is a nasty and surprisingly effective ride most notable for its off-the-charts pulp-style acting, including Hayek's imperious Elena and memorably sleazy turns by Del Toro and Travolta. “Savages” is raw, but thanks to these fully invested performances, it's a psycho killer.
— George Lang
(Strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout)
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Starring: Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Demian Bichir, Benicio Del Toro.