Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travlota, Demián Bichir, Emile Hirsch
MPAA Rating: (for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout)
Running Time: 2:10
Release Date: 7/6/12
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 5, 2012
Savages says nothing we do not already know about the illegal drug trade. The movie's key argument is that the trade is ruthless, especially toward those people too naïve to realize just how brutal the whole enterprise can be.
Another key here is that we're talking about illegal drugs. Our heroes Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) make a decent profit selling marijuana to proprietors who, in turn, sell it to patients for medicinal purposes. It's when they decided the real money was to be had distributing their product to the unlicensed dealers that they began their inevitable downfall. Even a crooked but sympathetic DEA agent (John Travolta) admits as much after he learns the duo has become entangled with at least one Mexican drug cartel: If they're patient, marijuana will eventually become legal, and then they won't have to worry about anyone trying to strong-arm them into playing along with the game. That the agent is corrupt probably gives more credence to his words than they would have if he were not.
The real question—left unasked—is whether these two would want to even bother selling pot if it were to become legal. After all, the medical trade wasn't enough for them in the first place.
They were asking for trouble, which is something O (Blake Lively), who loves both Chon and Ben, probably would never even think to admit. O (short for Ophelia—a name she despises because it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy) is the most naïve of the group of characters Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, and director Oliver Stone's screenplay (based on a novel by Winslow) presents—a spoiled, rich girl whose current life seems to have been borne out of rebellion. Her unseen mother is away with the latest in a series of husbands, but when her boyfriends' career catches up with them in potentially deadly ways and forces the trio to flee the country, O still feels a need to tell her mother she'll be away for a while. Mom, for whatever reason (because of her own lifestyle or perhaps because of frustration with her daughter's actions), stopped caring a long time ago.
O narrates large portions of the story with insufferably optimistic, pseudo-philosophical babble (Her rose-tinted view of the world is only challenged when talking about her mother—though she seems in denial about that relationship—and the possibility that she might not be alive at the end of her own story). We eventually learn the background of the story.
Chon and Ben are polar opposites. Chon joined the Navy SEALs to go to Afghanistan and take home seeds of the best marijuana in the world; there, O tells us, he "lost his soul." Ben travels to other parts of the world to bring renewable energy and other necessities through his charitable foundation; he regularly wonders what the Buddha would do in any given situation. Together, they make O's perfect man ("Chon is Earth, and Ben is Spirit," she just won't stop narrating), which perhaps explains why they are so bland as individual characters. The threesome has shaped a little slice of paradise for themselves in Laguna Beach, California.
Their product is good—too good to go unnoticed. After deciding to turn down an offer to share their secrets with an influential drug cartel in Mexico, Ben and Chon decide to run but not before O is kidnapped. She can go free after a year if her boyfriends take the original deal with a cut in their profits.
If the central trio is unimpressive, the screenplay more than makes up for it with some the supporting characters. The head of the Baja Cartel is Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek), who took control after the murders of her husband and one of her sons. Her plan is to obtain Chon and Ben's methods in order become the most powerful of the drug leaders in Mexico, gain political influence with the newly elected president of the country, and obliterate her rival, who is responsible for the destruction of her family. Her daughter (Sandra Echeverría) lives in California and is embarrassed by her mother. A series of scenes reveals a strange and sinister mother-daughter bond growing between Elena and O.
Her right-hand man is Lado (Benicio Del Toro), a vicious killer who seems to imagine each and every horrible thing he does is a joke. There's an unbridled glee here—both to the character and Del Toro's performance—that only extends the reach of Lado's depravity. He's a man who could snap at any moment, if only because he gets such demented joy out of killing.
Once Chon and Ben decide to get enough money to free O immediately (The plan, to steal the money directly from the Baja Cartel and give it back to them, is insane enough to work), Savages kicks into auto-pilot with a series of double- and triple-crosses as people die in violent ways. Strangely, as the story plays out in a more straightforward fashion, some characters become clearer (Ben has to grapple with his conscience), while others obtain more freedom (Lado fully embraces his role of a loose cannon). The whole affair still, though, doesn't quite work.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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