Universal Pictures 127 min., dir. by Oliver Stone, with Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, and Aaron Johnson
Avoiding trailers is a talent of mine. The less I know about a film before seeing it, the better. I happened to catch Savages‘ trailer, however, and I was disappointed with what I saw. Luckily, Savages isn’t the 100 percent adrenaline-packed shoot ‘em up showstopper the trailer presents it as. A welcomed return for Oliver Stone as a fearless director, Savages benefits by not becoming an action-only film.
Chon and Ben (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) have their lives pretty much set on cruise control. They run a drug business that only deals in marijuana that they tailor themselves. Their product even boasts the highest THC count anyone can find. Their business is fairly hassle-free and keeps them living the good life with cash rolling in. When the most powerful Mexican cartel comes knocking on their door with an offer to join forces, Chon and Ben are not thrilled. Ben attempts to just walk away by offering up their whole operation, but the big boys need Chon and Ben, and aren’t willing to play ball. In an effort to change their minds, the cartel takes the one thing Chon and Ben hold dearest: their mutual girlfriend, Ophelia (Blake Lively, referred to as just O in the film). At the point of no return, the duo does whatever possible to stay alive and get O back.
The entire rundown is fairly well known and practically offered up in the trailer. The interesting thing about Savages is the parallel that’s drawn between the drug trade and modern corporate America. If there was ever a drug story that screamed to be made by Oliver Stone, this is it. The film wants you to believe this is a normal dealers vs. dealers affair, but once the smoke screen disperses, sit-downs, mergers, and business plans all take control. There’s blood, explosions, gore, and breasts to be seen in Savages, but it’s the film’s reluctance to follow the fast-paced nature you’d expect from a drug war film that makes it succeed.
Too many characters, narration by a naive young character, and a two-hour running time that feels more like three are a few things that hold Savages back from being something great. As much as Savages tries to be something different than its predecessors, it has similar shortcomings. The big, bad cartel has tabs on Chon, Ben, O, and their entire network from the jump. For some reason, though, once they get hold of O, they decide to just drop all their surveillance. This allows Chon and Ben the opportunity to plan against their oppressors; it’s a circumstance I was led to believe this well-connected cartel would be smart enough to make sure didn’t happen.
No award-winning caliber performances fly off the screen here, but there’s some substance to enjoy. Benicio del Toro is back to his comically wicked ways, and this is the first time Taylor Kitsch hasn’t annoyed beyond belief. Everyone else is on par with what they should deliver, but over everything else, Salma Hayek (as cartel leader Elena) is a pleasure. Based on the previews, I was ready to watch Hayek trot down the road of gloriously distracting overacting that seems to be all the rage with the female baddies these days. Instead, Hayek reels in the madness just a bit, making everything more real.
Making the perfect film is tough, if possible at all. The pitfalls of Savages are no different than the many films that garnered tremendous praise, and if you fixed them all, it still wouldn’t be a fantastic film. Nonetheless, Savages is worthy of your time and a triumph for Oliver Stone after some years of underwhelming films.