Producer-Director Oliver Stone, best known for his political thrillers, war films and a recently completed Castro documentary, reverts back to Natural Born Killers/U-Turn type for his latest film, Savages, appealing to a wider commercial market wanting pulpy, consumable, popcorn action thrillers without any political intensity. In a way, Savages is a satisfying all-action trip with glamorous players, overindulgent settings and panoramic vistas because Stone can command that kind of glossy budget.
On the other hand, with Benicio Del Toro in this as a shady character on the other side of the law from his Traffic days, you regret the fact that there is not more meaningful substance to the whole affair, especially as Stone’s film is based on established crime writer Don Winslow’s book, who spent years researching the DEA and drug cartels for The Power Of The Dog. But it still has its ‘Saturday night at the movies’ enjoyment factor with a buff young cast and crime-thriller old-timers to boot.
Harvard-educated weed cultivators Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) – sounding like a play on the iconic Cheech and Chong – have the good life: a thriving, manageable business off the glorious, beach-centric Californian coast, pots of money and (well) pot, as well as a shared, beautiful all-Californian girlfriend in O (Blake Lively). Life is running too sweetly it seems, until the bigger drug barons come to town and want a share of their profits, run by the illusive Elena (Salma Hayek), Mexican drug kingpin who has brains (Alex the lawyer, played by Demián Bichir) and the twisted, sick brawn (Lado, played by Del Toro) backing her. Local DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) who is on the boys’ payroll is powerless to help – and unwilling. It’s only after the boys’ ‘weak spot’ (O) is kidnapped by Elena and crew that the real fight for business survival begins.
The opener sets the scene for the film ahead: bodies beautiful and lots of decadence, in terms of wealth and firepower. Fans of Kitsch and Johnson will find them watchable with a screen ease of long-time buddies – and it’s the first film Johnson is actually amenable in. Kitsch resorts to pumped hunk action tactics from his Battleship time, although supposedly meant to be more ‘damaged’ as a war veteran, but not nearly as dark or disturbing as a Mickey Knox, which might have made things more interesting. Stone’s downfall is the writing of O as the film’s bland (smug) stoner narrator, who is as vacuous as she is annoying after a while, however good to look at. In fact, you lose all interest in her rescue and hope that her mention at the start that she ‘might be dead’ bodes true.
The true scene-stealers are Del Toro, Travolta and Hayek who are left to add some much-needed character to proceedings in their own, rather bizarrely coiffured way (check out the hairstyles). Del Torro does menace like no other, even in the throes of humorous dealings, and Travolta is as slimy as they come. However, Hayek as a woman cartel boss (for a change) is rather convincing as a very real threat to her unruly Latino mob, mixing both beauty and matriarchal menace in one, with a wonderfully amusing scene where she puts ‘her boys’ in place for overstepping the mark. Stone tries to keep her human and less caricature by injecting a softer side as an actual mother to her back story, which changes the pace at times but does little for us relating more to O’s entrapped dilemma. In fact, O comes off worse as a character and even more expendable after dinner with the lady boss.
As expected, Stone has some war scenes and bloody fighting to keep us happily entertained too, when the posturing gets a little too much and lacks that carefree, beach-bum coolness of Point Break, say. In fact, think pot-angled Fast and The Furious for a banal action fix, complete with good-looking males at the helm, though without nearly enough thrills added to the mix. It’s untaxing, extravagant filmmaking that at least shows off Del Toro, Travolta and Hayek’s winning screen attributes, even if the narrative is as flaky and dopey as some of its pot partakers.
By Lisa Giles-Keddie