Oliver Stone, bless ’im, still believes in red-meat cinema. The proof is in Savages, a hard-“R” crime drama that never treats the audience as juvenile. Ironically, one of the points Stone goes after with his countercultural summer movie is the fatuity of big-screen hero myths. One character, a veteran of foreign wars named Chon--and played by Taylor Kitsch with an at-times familiar drawl--implicitly represents a darker and more authentic version of the characters played by John Wayne, referred to in Don Winslow’s novel as “a draft-dodging movie war hero cowboy.” Stone’s film version hopes that we’re ready to smell the bull in many of Wayne’s war movies and “cowboys and Indians” pictures, too often simplistic us-versus-them narratives of “Americans” fending off “savages.” (Stone and Winslow share screenplay credit with Shane Salerno.)
As for Chon’s business partner and best friend Ben (Aaron Johnson of Kick-Ass), he brings to mind the American entrepreneurship of Ben and Jerry. The boutique product they export from Laguna Beach isn’t gourmet ice cream but gourmet pot, with an unprecedented THC content of thirty-three percent. Ben and Chon face a hostile takeover by a Mexican cartel coveting the young men’s product and expertise. When the duo makes other plans, the cartel takes their surfer girl Opehlia, or “O” (Blake Lively), hostage, setting off a war of wills. The standard-issue plot mechanics function just fine, but the characterizations say “Elmore Leonard, eat your heart out.” The equilateral (or is it?) love triangle--everyone’s cool that O sleeps with both men in turns--offers a dramatic relational novelty, and the young performers are well cast.
But it’s the supporting cast that makes the movie. Salma Hayek’s Elena, the cruel mistress of the cartel, doesn’t suffer fools, but she’s also a devoted, frustrated mother. Benicio Del Toro plays her top goon Lado (Benicio Del Toro), both psychotic and unexpectedly sensitive. John Travolta is the slick, corrupt DEA agent ever looking out for number one. All three could be Oscar front-runners: they’re that good, and even more delicious when they mix it up in duets.
Savages dares to depict sex and drugs as pleasurable pursuits, and unleashes profanity and violence not as cheap thrills but facts of life; Vietnam veteran Stone doesn’t cheapen violence, but rather considers its roles in American life and our international relations. How dare he: no wonder the guy’s always getting in trouble with the establishment.
Though it’s not requisite for enjoyment of the movie, the satire is right there for the taking by those willing to play along with the maestro. The ménage a trois at the heart of the film emblematizes American life: naïve consumer O is in bed with both damaged-goods muscle Chon and U.C. Berkeley-bred Buddhist businessman Ben, but they’ll never want her as much as they want, need, and envy each other. There’s something beautiful and sad about their codependency.
The middle-aged set is much more literal in depicting, in ways that can be funny or scary, the rot on both sides of the border. Stone revels in the power plays, stokes suspense repeatedly and with ease, and casts a knowing eye toward the savagery swept under all of our rugs.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]