Let me start by saying that the most impressive thing about Savages is the fact that it is a real movie. By which I mean, the story contains several fully developed, interesting and layered characters and is propelled by an exciting and multifaceted plot. Yes, folks, a real fucking PLOT. The writing here is superior to anything else we’ve seen this year. Not that I expected any less from Oliver Stone. But movies lately are heavy on visual effects, action, humor, basically everything except real substance of story. Not this time. Leave it to the professionals (read: Oliver Stone) to bring us back to the art of storytelling, not just wicked CGI and A-list celebrities dazzling us while telling a story as complex as Mary Had A Little Lamb. Sex, drugs and graphic violence (of which there is plenty) aside, there is a real story. A really good story. And it’s an adult movie. Like I said, loads of sex, drugs and violence. Look, I like PG-13. I loved The Avengers and I’m seriously looking forward to Brave but sometimes it’s good to watch something that isn’t made for as broad an audience as possible. You know, a movie that is made for GROWN UPS.
First, the cast. Benicio Del Toro is scary. He’s intimidating and creepy and just the look of him makes my skin crawl. Yep… he’s the perfect villain. He’s a damned fine actor in any role but in a role like this – a proper villain, by the way, a truly sadistic psychopath with no loyalties, no remorse and a love of all things wicked – he seriously shines. Salma Hayek is one smooth professional. Setting aside the irrefutable fact that she somehow grows more beautiful as she ages (the fuck??), the woman is a scene stealer. She plays a villainous role here as well and it is refreshing to see a gorgeous and smart woman in a strong, powerful role.
Together, Chon (Taylor Kitsch… yumm) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) made one hell of a guy. Chon is an Afghanistan veteran who carries both physical and emotional scars. He’s no haunted shell of a man, though, instead an angry and sharp man with more conviction after smoking a water bong than most people have at their best. Ben is the hippie grower who wants to save the world via grassroots methods through green energy. Their dynamic totally works. Each character is developed well and consistent throughout. Even the love triangle as a working relationship somehow works, and I was way skeptical going in. I thought it would be over the top, unrealistic, overly glamorized. And there is some gratuitous sex, ‘natch, but the relationship seems kind of organic and, though I think it would take 3 rarely unique individuals to pull it off in reality, the movie makes it seem almost normal. Or, believable, at least.
Which brings me to Blake Lively. Lively, while decent enough, I guess, definitely gives the weakest performance of the lot. She’s cute and all but if she wants to hang with big kids the likes of Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, and John Travolta in a fucking Oliver Stone film, she’d better improve her craft. She suffered by comparison here. She narrates the film and while it definitely added relevant information, Lively needs to be more, well… lively. Listen, sweetheart: Stop acting like you’re acting and just act real.
Okay, for those of you who haven’t seen the trailers, here’s the gist: Chon and Ben are best friends and partners in a successful marijuana growing and distribution operation. They are both openly dating Ophelia (Lively), who gets kidnapped by the Mexican cartel, headed up by Elena (Salma Hayek), after Chon and Ben rebuff her offer for partnership. Lado (Del Toro) is Elena’s right hand man and the ruthless psychopath who uses tortuous methods to carry out her wishes. Chon and Ben vow to get the love of their lives back with the help of their crooked DEA contact, Dennis (John Travolta), who, of course, is not entirely to be trusted.
Stone uses the military background of his main character as a kind of an homage to our troops. There’s a killer scene involving the hijacking of a bunker full of cash that, by itself, is testament to Stone’s ability as a film maker. Later on, Chon and Ben are about to enter a high-risk situation and Chon, the vet, tells his best bud: “You’re already dead. You were dead the moment you were born.” Not only did this one line bring some existential depth to the flick, it’s also consistent with Chon’s military background (this is how soldiers are trained to think in order to accept the mortal risk inherent to their job) – this is how you carefully layer meaning into a film while staying true to your characters and the story itself.
There is a different approach to the ending but I don’t want to give any details away, which makes it impossible for me to give you my opinion on it. I will say only this: while I kind of liked the idea of the double ending, I would have preferred an ending that was a blend of the two.
Stone brings us some of the techniques he used back in Natural Born Killers, specifically the switching from black and white to vibrant color. Here, as opposed to NBK, it is cleaned up and sophisticated looking. More than once, I was reminded of NBK, as well as Traffic and True Romance. He took the parts of those flicks that worked the best and further improved upon them in Savages.
If I say anymore, I’ll give away every detail of the 2 hour 11 minute- film. And I can’t do that to you. It’s too good to spoil.