Savages doesn’t rank among filmmaker Oliver Stone’s best work, but thankfully it does find him doing what he does best: fearlessly telling a gritty, ugly story of amoral, treacherous people driven by their worst instincts. It’s U-Turn without the overwhelming weirdness; whether or not that’s a plus is strictly a matter of taste.
Based on Don Winslow’s novel, Savages gives us O (short for Ophelia, played by Blake Lively of Green Lantern), the shared lover of gentle chemist Ben (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) and hardened ex-Navy SEAL Chon (Taylor Kitsch, Battleship and John Carter), young entrepreneurs who legally and illegally sell some of the highest-grade marijuana available in Laguna Beach.
This puts them on the radar of a struggling Mexican cartel led by La Reina Elaina (Salma Hayek in full warrior queen mode), who want to distribute the boys’ product to her clients in exchange for 20 percent of the profits. Ben and Chon want to get out of the business entirely, and turn Elena down; not one to take “no” for an answer, she responds by taking O hostage and forcing the duo to come to terms, kicking off a bloody cat-and-mouse game with some very (ahem) high stakes.
As characters go, our protagonists are just bad enough to make them believable but not unlikable. Ben is also a philanthropist hippie who uses his drug profits to help impoverished African villages; he’s the counterbalance to Chon’s no-nonsense, kill-’em-all aggressiveness. It’s no wonder the spoiled and vapid O loves them — they’re the polarized sides of the same coin, combined to represent the perfect ideal male — but as Elaina points out: “They love each other more, otherwise why would they be willing to share you?”
The real ugly fun comes via Savages‘ more sleazy characters: Hayek is in rare form as a ferocious crime queenpin struggling to maintain an empire threatened from within and without; Benicio Del Toro is so scummy as her shifty righthand man that he’s squirm-inducing, especially the way he leers and lurks when around O; and John Travolta, playing a corrupt DEA agent with a wife dying of cancer, who urges Ben and Chon to take the deal because “You don’t say ‘no’ to Wal-Mart.”
Stone revisits some of his older themes here — the drug trade, Latin American locations, the rush of unrestrained greed — and seems to allowing himself to run free for the first time in years, relying more on his instincts and less on expectations. He only shoots himself in the foot with a contrived and ill-conceived ending that seems so intent on providing everyone with their ideal ending that he actual gives us two climaxes (and not in a good way).