We're Cool Like That
Intense. That's about one word to sum up Oliver Stone's Savages, a tale dripping with sex, drugs and violence at a level that hasn't been seen since, probably, Natural Born Killers. Savages is perhaps also his most straight-forward film to date, that has his usual tirade against the establishment conspicuously absent, boasting an ensemble cast of fresh faces and veterans centered around drug cartels, mergers and acquisitions, and a warped yet strong, love story as its emotional centre.
Based upon the novel of the same name by Don Winslow, Savages aptly describes all the leading characters in this story, who are ruled by their primal instincts whether in their nature, or having the environment they're in forced unto them. The anti-heroes here are Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), two high school buddies whose bromance had led them to a path of joint riches, with Chon's tour of duty in Afghanistan resulted in his smuggling of A-grade cannabis seeds for cultivation, combined with Ben's botanical know how and business acumen. They become well known as the go to people for their boutique concoction to get high, and soon their reputation precedes them, with interest coming from Mexican cartels to want to acquire their business and transfer of knowledge. Which of course they get the big middle finger.
So in true gangster fashion, you hit them where it hurts most, by kidnapping their joint squeeze O (Blake Lively), and blackmailing them for their cooperation and part of the business. But nobody will take this lying down, especially when one has power, money and the law on your side, crookedly of course, and the entire narrative shifts into turbo gear, gripping from that point on in a cat and mouse game played by three sides, Chon and Ben, the Mexicans led by Elena (Salma Hayek) and her main enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro), and a manipulative DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta), where trust becomes that scarce commodity, and everyone looking into preserving their interests when events escalate into full scale violence, and tit for tat retaliation.
You'll be forced to believe and go along with the explicit menage a trois relationship between O, Chon and Ben, in what would be an extremely open relationship where the two men take turns to physically share O, as well as each other when it comes to the running of their business. This is somewhat important as it seals the deal, to make it somewhat believable that they would risk everything just to ensure her safety and return into their arms when she gets taken, setting into motion every act of violence that Chon is very capable of, and dragging the fairly violence reluctant Ben along for an eye for an eye action. If this aspect of the men's relationship, and that with O, fail to engage, then this story would fall apart because the narrative will be riddled with too many what ifs, since what Ben and Chon would do, would run contrary to logic.
And in some strange coincidence, this was almost a three on three, with the younger cast members showing off what they can do, and the veterans holding their own and responding back, despite having more limited screentime, but nonetheless making full use of what's given to stem their mark. Taylor Kitsch turns in a steady performance after the rather bland outings as John Carter, and in Battleship. Although again cast as muscle in the film, he's made to look good thanks to Aaron Johnson sharing some pitch perfect chemistry as the blood brother, while Blake Lively had the rather surprising task of holding the entire story together, being the chief narrator from beginning to end.
Not to be outdone, Salma Hayek, so rarely seen on screen these days, sizzle as the drug cartel queen whose black heart is obscured by her well maintained figure, vicious and cunning, though not without a weakness that you'd come to expect some exploitation later in the tale. John Travolta probably has the least screen time here as the corrupt cop, but one who's somewhat necessary if not to isolate the law in the film, since it would be highly unrealistic to do so. Equipped with a motor mouth and loyalties that swing as fast as the outcome of the drug war, his role as master manipulator against Benicio Del Toro's Lado was one of the many highlights in the film. If I were to judge which actor did and had the best role, it would be Del Toro hands down, as the Mexican enforcer who is none too bright, but compensating that for a brand of uncompromising violence, and a behaviour that disgusts.
Full of scenes involving drug abuse, sex and plenty of gore filled violence that went for realism rather than designed to be over the top, Savages is one of a kind film about drug dealers involved in a mergers and acquisitions gone terribly wrong. It zips through its more than 2 hours sprawling narrative with wit and pomp, with breathtaking visuals and an eclectic choice of music scattered throughout. If only it did not flinch in it finale, and decided upon a single ending, rather than a choose your own adventure style that hinted at a cop out to please those who read about its level of blood. Still, this is an Oliver Stone film so why not an ending that's bound to create some controversy and buzz, and for fans of crime capers, this is a definite recommendation.