Hearing announcements about Oliver Stone's upcoming films has never really excited me. While he's put forth some great films like SCARFACE and JFK, others like WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS and ALEXANDER were absolutely boring and NATURAL BORN KILLERS was just plain fucked up. It wasn’t SAVAGES came my way that I was genuinely interested in seeing one of his films beforehand. I've always been drawn to films that delve into drug wars. The stories twist and turn with the various factions fighting for control as they use any form of violence and politics to win, all while trying to avoid being caught by the cops. It’s dangerous and fascinating to maneuver through such a world and SAVAGES looked like it fit right into that category.
You’ve got two pot growers, the pacifist Ben (Aaron Johnson) and the hot headed ex-Navy SEAL Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who grow some of the best weed in the world and run a relatively peaceful business. But when a Mexican drug cartel, led by Elena (Salma Hayek), tries to hoard in on their business, they politely decline.
Now no one says no to a Mexican drug cartel so Elena goes after their one weakness, their shared girlfriend O (Blake Lively). Elena’s trusted assassin/associate, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), kidnaps O and Chon and Ben do everything they can to get her back.
A lot of the first half of the movie is driven by the love between Ben, Chon and O and their love story is pretty straight forward. These two boys love each other in a bromantical way while they have a shared love for O as their girlfriend. Many of the characters and myself wondered how does all that work without someone getting jealous or how did it even came to be is something? Where did this fierce love for her come from? It’s never stated beyond the initial introduction but I would've liked for their relationship to have been more developed so we could understand that dynamic more and care about them. Because even though I felt for Ben and Chon, their love story didn't seem fully realized and it took a backseat to more interesting storylines.
Their love story gets pushed to the background as the power struggle within Elena’s cartel begins to take over. Elena struggles to maintain her empire as she’s trying to take over Ben and Chon’s business but she’s also worried about another Mexican competitor known as El Azul. She’s also got a weakness that prevents her from acting rationally and the boys exploit that with the help of a crooked DEA agent played by John Travolta. Lado doesn’t want to remain under Elena’s thumb and tries to make his own moves to become top dog by any means necessary but still covering his tracks so he doesn’t get caught. With so much going on in the cartel, this story was so much more tense and exciting than the love story. On top of that the drug cartel had better actors. There’s Del Toro who is fantastic, completely losing himself in Lado and coming off as such a ruthless but super chill maniac. Hayek's Elena will fuck a bitch up without a second thought but she also displays a vulnerable side and almost all too easily gives into that vulnerability. Demián Bichir has a small role as one of Elena’s representatives but is in one of the film’s most memorable and bloody scenes. Travolta is great as the conniving, frantic DEA official who’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.
And the violence that comes with the cartel is just brutal! There is plenty of it, as Stone doesn’t shy away from showing bloody torture chambers, severed limbs and gory shootouts, most of which comes at the hands of Lado. Even though the violence doesn’t reach NATURAL BORN KILLERS level and I can handle a lot of violence and blood, at some points I just had to turn away. With every scene there is the constant threat of violence giving a sense of unpredictability and it all leads to a white-knuckle climax that had me wrecked with anxiety. That is until SAVAGES absolutely ruins itself. The story builds and builds to this tense standoff that had a tragic but beautiful Shakespearean ending that I was more than willing to accept and be at peace with. But then they decided to cop out of it and give a much more conventional ending that was just infuriating to me. With all the brutality and action that I had witnessed throughout the movie, the ending made sense to me. I really enjoyed the movie up until this point. This was the kind of bloody shoot out that I look forward to in these drug movies and then they just absolutely ruined the whole feel of the movie by sticking to some Hollywood convention.
With more and more emphasis being put on the cartel, it became clear that Johnson, Kitsch and Lively couldn’t carry the weight of the movie themselves, especially with the other exceptional actors involved. I became more considered with who was going to take over the cartel, if Elena would still be in charge or if Lado was going to try and usurp her or if El Azul was going to get rid of the two them than if Ben and Chon were going to rescue O and give up their business.
Despite being outshined by the veteran actors, Kitsch and Johnson still gave good performances. Johnson was great in KICK-ASS but he’s definitely grown as an actor since then. He shows maturity as Ben and is given the chance to develop his character beyond being a hippy, philanthropist. When Ben’s brought over into Chon’s violent world, he’s forced to shed that innocent do-gooder mindset but is pretty shell-shocked by the whole experience. Kitsch hasn’t had the greatest roles this year but he plays a one-dimensional angry, violent guy pretty well. Chon is all violence, all the time and Kitsch always has his angry eyes in, a scowl on his face and looks more than comfortable roughing people up. Lively definitely looks the part of a SoCal girl and she wasn’t bad as the damsel in distress but she also doesn’t do much beyond being locked up and gagged. I also could have done without her narration throughout the movie. Occasionally she is useful provided background details on characters but most of the time she’s delivering all these lame, pseudo-enlightening lines like “He doesn’t have orgasms. He has wargasms.” and contemplating the ways of life. Just stay bound and gagged please.
SAVAGES could’ve been a real top notch drug war film had they stuck with the original ending, cut out O's narration and developed the love story some more. While I had my issues, it was still an exciting, sexy and gruesome film with some great performances that gave a modern take on the drug world.