Two drug entrepreneurs trying to get out of the game make an ill-advised deal with the cunning head of violent drug cartel, setting off a series of deceptions and double-crosses in the crime thriller, Savages.
There is no disputing that Oliver Stone is an amazing visionary storyteller, sporting three Academy Awards for writing and directing over the past thirty years. After a lackluster effort his last time out, Stone seems re-invigorated telling the story of two friends and their shared girlfriend who are living the good life as drug growers and dealers in upscale Laguna Beach.
Narrated by Ophelia (Blake Lively) known as “O,” she shares the story of the two loves of her life – the earthy, botanist Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the hardened former U.S. Seal, Chon (Taylor Kitsch). In addition to going in business together to grow and sell the best weed on the planet, their polar opposite personalities and approaches to their business make them collectively, the Buddha and The Baddest, the perfect man for O.
While their business is thriving in SoCal, across the border it has unfortunately drawn the attention of the violent and ruthless Mexican Baja Cartel who wants a piece of their booming action. Led by the beautiful but fearless, Elena (Salma Hayek), the BC have developed a reputation as some hardcore mercenaries who routinely decapitate their enemies letting them know like Wu Tang Clan that they are nothing to f**k with. Along with her corrupt enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), she summon the two partners to a meeting proposing a partnership to help them expand their operation. When Ben and Chon balk at the agreement, Elena arranges for her men to kidnap O, forcing them to work together against their will.
Ben, who wants to get out of the game to pursue other more lucrative, honorable opportunities, meets resistance from his partner and organizational muscle, Chon. “Why should we give up something that we built?,” Chon questions Ben. The two turn to their inside source, corrupt DEA agent, Dennis (John Travolta) to give them some info to help them retrieve their lady. While Dennis gets a monthly package from the fellas to keep the heat off of them, unbeknownst to them he is also getting money across the border from the BC as well through his connection with the crooked and ambitious Lado.
While on the surface, the film is a story of revenge, Stone layers his tale with additional elements that provide much-needed subtext that keeps the story moving and interesting. Savages is a story of contrasts, whether it’s the personalities of the Cali partners or the inner-conflict of BC leader, Elena. Adopting the business after the murder of her husband and brothers, she is ferocious in business but heartbroken as a mother, whose college-student daughter is ashamed of her and refuses to see her. Elena semi-adopts her hostage, O, who gives her the love and attention she sorely lacks and misses from her daughter.
Based on the novel from Don Winslow, the film plays like a hybrid Elmore Leonard story sprinkled with the violent sensibilities of Quentin Tarantino. Strikingly similar to of all films, Super Fly, the story of two partners with different agendas who are forced to work for someone else when their business becomes too successful, proves that a great concept spans generations.
Stone benefits from a group of great performances starting with Lively as the carefree O. She balances perfectly her affection for both men, never compromising one over the other. Kitsch’s strong performance wipes his ’12 slate clean, redeeming his John Carter and Battleship disasters. Taylor-Johnson continues to build momentum from his work in both Albert Nobbs and Kick-Ass, playing perfectly off of his co-stars. As a breath of fresh air, Hayek is fantastic balancing both her maternal side with authoritative business practices. Del Toro and Travolta round out a solid ensemble as a pair of less-than-honorable men pushing their own agendas.
While Savages isn’t Stone’s best film, it’s his strongest effort since Natural Born Killers, finding him back in rare form expertly orchestrating the action and chaos never letting it go off the rails. He even manages to curtail the bloody body count, hinting at impending mayhem but taking you to the edge without taking you over. Welcome back to important filmmaking, Mr. Stone – it’s been a LONG time!