"Savages" has all the components of a great movie: a story written by Don Winslow, one of the top crime novelists of the 21st century, the filmmaking finesse of three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone, and a cast of actors who range from big-name stars (Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro) who have been around the block to up-and-comers who are, right now, the toast of Hollywood (Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson). Plus, the story is a virtual cornucopia of rich characters that translate as well on film as they do on the page.
California girl O (she says her parents named her for Ophelia, Shakespeare's tragic heroine in "Hamlet") tells most of the story in voiceover. And while sometimes frequent narration to move along a movie's plot can weigh a film down, Stone knows just how to handle it. Besides, she hooks us from the get go: "Just 'cause I'm telling you this story doesn't mean that I'm alive at the end of it," says O (played by Lively). You're sure to stick to this story, hanging on to every minute of its almost two hour running time.
O shares her life and a house with two men. The house, which is more of a modern mansion, is a Laguna Beach, Calif., expanse set on the side of a hill, just steps away from the beach. In addition to O, the privileged who live there are Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch). The two best friends (since college, O tells us) have made millions in marijuana. But the business partners couldn't be more polar opposites when it comes to their philosophies. Ben is a peaceful Buddhist who wants to use the money he's made to save the world. Chon compares Ben's trips to Africa to similar efforts begun by a well-known music star. "You've gone all Bono on us," he says.
Chon (whose real name is John, but Chon sounds more like someone in the pot biz) is an ex-Navy Seal with inner and outer scars still fresh from his tours of duty. He believes that violence is a surefire way to solve things. "You let people think you're weak, sooner or later you're going to have to kill them." He went to Afghanistan, however, to find the best marijuana seeds for growing, when the college pals were budding entrepreneurs. Perhaps he wanted to serve his country, but that wasn't his motivation for going.
The two, however, do share one philosophy -- they both share O equally in every way, which is one of the things that will eventually get them into hot water. While she's their Achilles heel, their pot business is their heart and soul. Business is booming, and it's not just under a grow light on a patio; their marijuana is cultivated in high-tech labs with distributors selling the stuff like Amway agents. The Mexican Baja Cartel has taken notice, too, and wants a cut of the action. They aren't the types to take no for an answer either. Soon the trio's idyllic life will come crashing in around them as the head of the cartel, Elena (Hayek), and her henchmen (Del Toro) come calling. Even the boys' Drug Enforcement Agency pal, Dennis (John Travolta) can't get them out of the impending grips of "The Queen," La Reina.
With the current strife in Mexico making news daily, border battles and the overall North American drug war, the plot seems ripped from the headlines. Winslow knows this turf from doing intensive research for his book like interviewing drug runners, scouring DEA files and soaking up the atmosphere.
While the film's story is so incredibly rich, having Stone's vision through the lens makes it even more satisfying. Like Stone's mega hyper "Natural Born Killers," "Savages" has the same tempo. The laid-back lives of Laguna Beach stoners is juxtaposed with the sadistic life of a multi-million dollar illegal business, and Stone injects a constant adrenaline rush that pulsates through the film.
Stone knows how to get the best out of a cast. Think about "Wall Street," "W," "Born on the Fourth of July" and the aforementioned "Killers." While there's plenty of plot, what you remember most are the characters.
Here he has Lively amping up her lonely girl performance we saw in 2010's "The Town." In fact, put them in the same room and O could be the sister of Krista, her character in that movie. But for "Savages," Lively has a bigger job as narrator, the tour guide of the movie, so to speak. Her performance isn't A-list, but she she's no slouch either. She's up against some serious powerhouses. Hayek is Oscar worthy in her role as the evil Elena, and the sadistic character Del Toro conjures is frighteningly convincing. Travolta's performance as weasly DEA agent livens up the action (although each time he's on screen, it's difficult not to have your mind wander to the latest rumors plaguing the movie star).
Kitsch as Chon and Johnson as Ben basically move the plot along, but their low-key characters get lost in all of the frenetic action. Perhaps it is way the characters are written, rather than their portrayals. Still, you find yourself sympathizing with their plot. It seems so strange to hope that one set of bad guys (although they are the kind, gentler ones) will take down another set of bad guys. Call it the Modern Western, I guess.
For many, Stone's ultra violent take may be too much to handle. He doesn't try to hide the savagery of what lies beneath drugs and money and his take-no-prisoners look is what makes "Savages" so gripping.
If you want a thrill ride that's bad to the bone, "Savages" is the ticket.