Movie Review: Savages
If anything separates the two warring factions in Oliver Stone’s Savages, a word that is used by each side to describe the other, it is not how brutal, primitive, or cold-blooded they are, if for no other reason than because both sides show their beastly face. What defines three young, attractive SoCal indie pot-dealers and the Mexican drug cartel that hounds them is age, wisdom, and gravitas, or rather, lack thereof.
It is a beautifully bloody and strangely hilarious film based on Don Winslow’s 2010 thriller by the same name is simply far more compelling when the trio of 20-something protagonists—a hippie wunderkind, a war vet, and their shared blonde girlfriend—are off the screen. Taylor Kitsch plays Chon, an army man who contributes the brawn half of his partnership with best friend Ben (Aaron Johnson), a humanitarian who just happens to make the best pot in the world; so good in fact that they attract the attention of the Wal-Mart of cartels south of the border.
When the pair disrespect an offer made to be bought up by the Mexican kingpins—because they’re savages who don’t know business and honor, suggest one man, Chon and Ben’s shared girlfriend Ophelia (call her O, she insists), is kidnapped. She will be killed too, in front of the boys, slowly, if the two don’t do as they are told—because the Mexicans are savages, torturing and murdering without remorse. Blake Lively plays O, a free-loving hippie of a girl who loves her two men, loves to shop, and may or may not have mommy issues, but who is ultimately incredibly boring.
When she is taken and the men start to delve into a world from which they cannot easily escape, it’s hard to root for them, not only because the three actors are mostly not that fascinating, but because you can’t help but become endeared to the likes of hit-man Lato (Benicio del Toro), and his boss, the woman in charge, Elena (Salma Hayek).
Lato is first introduced early in the film invading a man’s home who didn’t live up to his end of the deal, and quickly wishing he had. He is viciously brutal, killing men, women, and children on a whim, but with an infectious charm. For as violent as he is, however, Elena has his manhood in her hands, with the best scenes in the movie coming between the two of them. He is a man always in control, except when he is around the only woman who has more power than him.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like Stone meant to do this. Hayek, del Toro, Demian Bichir (from Weeds fame, where he also played a savvy Mexican gentleman dealing in drugs), and John Travolta as the quick-tongued DEA agent working every side, steal every scene, making the movie more comical and fun than it should be. They simply have the acting talent, though, and become instantly more compelling: the way del Toro twirls his mustache, how Hayek rolls her eyes, and even Travolta’s goofy grin are fantastic, and absurd.
Just as the three kids runs around the movie trying to figure things out, trying to steal money or get their girl back, they are all so serious, thinking and over-thinking, acting with either brains or brawn, but never with heart. Elena is in charge of the cartel, and so the men heed her every wish, smiling to her face, and cowering when her back is turned, and it’s evident why. Ophelia, however, while commanding the actions of the two men in her life, is simply lifeless.
Johnson is fine, as is Kitsch, who should finally have a movie that does well at the box office without being a giant laughing-stock (see Battleship, John Carter) who may be the most interesting and surely least insufferable as the icy-veined Chon.
Still, Stone seems to be lacking a bit of control in the film, even though he is likely having fun. Infused with light, beautiful California imagery and beautiful people, Savages oscillates between the cold-blooded and the silly, the buddy-bromance, and the love story. It has a distinct pulpy feel, with similarities to Quentin Tarantino enamoring an audience to villains and mixing death with quick wit, but where Tarantino develops characters and has lengthy, introspective scenes, Savages is a movie that can’t sit still.
The camera is constantly moving, the light changing, and the characters running around, attacking, accusing, and acquiescing, making for some hot summer fun.