Oliver Stone has a lot to say. From Platoon and Salvador to JFK and Wall Street, Stone has lain society bare with his cinematic diatribes.
In Savages, however, a movie ripe for deeper societal examinations, Stone leaves us with nothing remotely substantial. Instead of mining the implications of our continuing war on drugs, he chooses instead to repeatedly intone the equivalent of “two dudes one chick” over and over again.
While certainly unusual, it's better served as an obvious albeit underlying element of the film.
This is the inherent problem with Savages. Stone seems obsessed with trying to make a cool, edgy film. He wants to shock us, to capture some of the fire of his earlier work. Yet instead of focusing on the truly shocking — the seedy underworld material or even the implications of political decisions — Stone opts for shared love and super-hero pot dealers.
It's a disappointing waste.
The movie is a corporate war story played out in the realm of illicit drugs. Salma Hayek plays Elena Sanchez, the leader of the Baja Cartel. Facing fierce competition at home and losing ground to a shadowy figure named El Azul, she's banking on capturing new territory in the drug market: high-end marijuana. And the best strain is being produced by the film's protagonists, Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch).
Ben is an altruistic scientist, the brains behind the potent THC. His best-friend Chon is a former Navy SEAL, naturally in charge of security. When they balk at joining up with the Baja Cartel, their shared lover, Ophelia (Blake Lively), is kidnapped as an inducement to “reconsider” their stance.
This stand-off between a strong-willed independent organization and the menacing hulk of a Mexican cartel is the thrust of the movie. Yet, it offers little in the way of entertainment or erudition. Instead, the biggest reward for viewing are the supporting performances by Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta.
Del Toro is electric on screen as Lado, an enforcer and top lieutenant for the Baja Cartel. Thick and noticeably aged, he exudes a frighteningly deceptive ease with his fierce role.
Travolta, on the other hand, is addled and excitable as Dennis, a largely genial DEA operative that seems to be ingesting the traffic he's tasked to stop. Both performances are not only pitch-perfect, but are a stark comparison against the star turns of Kitsch, Taylor-Johnson, & Lively.
This is the biggest problem. Plenty may be forgiven if there is true depth and synergy between the main characters. They talk about their love, but it's never proven on screen. Instead, the savages give us nothing more than decent sex and half-baked profundities.
It only serves to underscore the obvious reality that Oliver Stone for once doesn't know what he wants to say.