By Ron Peltier
Savages, directed by Oliver Stone, is based off the novel of the same name by Don Winslow, who also co-wrote the screenplay. It quickly sets up the essential conflict in the first 10 minutes of the film. Chon, Ben and “O,” short for Ophelia, roommates and intimate friends have a successful marijuana growing and selling business. They share everything including each other sexually. There is no conflict as they are one happy and high surfer family. The friends are played by Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Blake Lively, respectively. All three are very effective and cinematic.
An e-mail is sent to them showing a “savage” retribution killing, requesting a meeting with them. The movie provides awkward voice over narration by “O” as she describes the killings as “Henry VIII-style”—presumably she means Henry’s 2nd wife Anne Boleyn. She provides rough personality outlines of her two lovers and how they started the business that has now attracted a violent Mexican drug cartel. Ben is the conscientious one of the group, using his money to build schools and water treatment facilities oversees. He majored in botany, grows excellent cannabis and is the brains of the operation. His best friend, Chon, an Iraq war veteran, serves as the brawn when things go badly. She evaluates their personalities by how the make love to her, and together, she concludes, they make a complete man. The film is often hooky with these flighty ruminations.
John Travolta plays Dennis, a dirty DEA agent, who essentially has provided support to the business by not investigating them and taking bribes to ignore their business. He tells them to make a deal with the cartel. Of course, they don’t. Travolta is quite effective as the slimy DEA agent, especially as he tries to worm himself out of a potentially life-threatening situation later in the film.
The cast is rounded out with Salma Hayek, playing the head of the cartel, Elena, and Benicio Del Toro, as Hayek’s main enforcer, Lado. Of course, the boys refuse Elena’s partnership and even offer to simply give over their business to the cartel to avoid conflict. Naturally this is not acceptable and the cartel kidnaps “O.”
The movie then becomes familiar. Despite following orders, Elena refuses to release “O.” The two men love her deeply, and thus, the rest of the movie centers on their efforts to free her.
The plot is taunt and effective. It moves quickly and provides some interesting scenarios. It does feel a bit familiar as the plot mines well-worn territory. Freeing the innocent from the clutches of “savages” is an all too typical refrain, but this film is engaging, entertaining and plausible.
The film tries to offer some deeper meditations. While Chon, a war veteran, is not bothered by using violence. Chon is. His “descent” into savagery in order to save his girlfriend is largely a distraction and not really that proactive or insightful. It is too predictable. How violent can one become? What are the deeps one will delve to in order to rescue the one you love?
The humanity of the film does not simply rest with Ben as he struggles with his own “savagery,” but also with Elena, who misses and loves her daughter. She calls her daughter only to be rebuffed. The daughter hates her mother, and this dynamic inserts some pathos into the film. Indeed, she even responds maternally to “O,” the “forced” guest.
Often these types of films have a strong leading man wreaking havoc on a seemingly impenetrable and often invisible organization—think Liam Neeson from Taken. At least this film takes the cartel’s powers and the strategy to retrieve “O” seriously. This is the best part of the film—the plotting, counterplotting, etc. to get “O” back.
The boys have a network of friends who assist in a variety of ways—computer nerds, an erstwhile Wall-Street banker and several ex-military vets all play critical roles. All this makes the plot a touch more palatable going down. Add to that the plot’s twists and suspicious character motivations and the Savages, while not outstanding, is nevertheless an entertaining film—a violent one, but still entertaining. Indeed, there are a few scenes that may rattle polite society. But considering the real savagery of the Mexican cartels, these scenes are appropriate.