Review: “Savages”

This is the Oliver Stone I like. In recent years, the famously intense, quasi-loony auteur has produced one oddity after another, from a big budget catastrophe (“Alexander”) to a saintly solemn portrayal of 9/11 responders (“World Trade Center”) to a schizophrenic hit-piece on President 43 (“W.”). None of them reached the thematic highs of “Platoon,” tapped the zeitgeist of “Wall Street,” or attained the infamy of “Natural Born Killers.” Bucking the downtrend, Stone’s latest picture, “Savages,” could be his most enjoyable ever – a delightfully vicious, smart crime movie that proves fiercely intelligent as well as deliriously entertaining.

“Savages,” adapted from a novel by Don Winslow (who co-wrote the script with Stone and Shane Salerno), plunges into a little corner of the drug war, threading through a web of ferocious, complex men and women. It’s rare that a movie advertised with images of machine gun fire ends up this interested in its characters or this capable at tying a labyrinthine plot together. Stone’s natural tendency towards narrative messiness rears its head at the conclusion, but he does disarray so well that it’s hard to mind.

“Savages” opens with a gruesome home video of poor Mexicans who found themselves on the wrong side of the drug war, then follows with a portrait of the idyllic but highly illegal life of two pot growers in Laguna Beach. Here, we have two sides of the same world, their inhabitants destined to collide. The two growers are Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), a former Navy SEAL and Berkeley-educated botanist, respectively, who have carved out their own piece of paradise by cultivating what the audience is assured is the best dope available anywhere. Chon acts as the muscle on the rare occasion that such is necessary, while Ben claims adherence to the teachings of the Buddha, meaning that their business runs smoothly and with minimal violence.

That is, minimal violence until they receive the aforementioned video from a Mexican cartel, a short film replete with severed heads. It comes with a message: join us or die. They instead opt to quit the business altogether, which might have worked just fine had O (Blake Lively), their shared girlfriend and muse, not taken one last trip to the mall, where she’s kidnapped by the senders of the tape. Now the deal has changed a bit: work for us or she dies, and then we’ll kill you, too.

Chon and Ben really love O, so much that they stick around and proceed to initiate their own private war on the cartel. Things start to get complicated. There’s Elena (Salma Hayek), the widow of the original cartel head, now in charge herself and apparently determined that her brutality need not lack just because of gender. Lado (Benicio del Toro), Elena’s lead enforcer, seems like he wants to be an affable man and loyal soldier to Elena, but his ambition makes that impossible. And then there’s Dennis (John Travolta), a corrupt D.E.A. agent seemingly working for both sides at once. It’s a testament to the richness of the material that as the characters add up, their individual personas and goals layer on top of one another distinctively, and the momentum of the narrative never skips a beat.

As seen in the ads, the plot at times requires that bullets fly and bombs explode. Chon and some old pals from the SEALs prove more than adequate at killing Mexican drug thugs, and it’s a delight when the fighting erupts. Stone proves an apt handler of these scenes, which are remarkably photographed to emphasize the hazards and unpleasantness of the violence while holding onto the excitement of watching it unfold. Yet the story proves so involving that even negotiations and planning often carry the same kick as the action scenes. Ben and Chon aren’t nearly as wicked as their opponents, but they prove to be quick studies in inventive nastiness. Stone doesn’t spare the blood, gore, and general cruelty, nor should he, for the arena in which these people live is pitiless.

Actors Kitsch (finally starring in a creative hit after two major flops), Johnson, and Lively prove adequate leads, but it’s the supporting players who bring the most to the table. Hayek, del Toro, and Travolta each play more villainous types than the main three, but every major character (even the murderous Elena and Lado) proves strangely sympathetic, as if they might not be such horrible people if circumstances were different. You might not like them, but you can understand them, and that’s saying a lot considering how ruthless they are.

Although not thematically provocative by Stone’s standards, “Savages” does smartly contain an element of political commentary via its setting, making this one of the most astute cinematic looks at the drug war since Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic.” There exist few good arguments for keeping current drug policies in place as is, and at one point Travolta’s D.E.A. agent suggests that thugs like Ben, Chon, and Elena will be wiped out when corporations eventually decide they want to reap drug profits for themselves. I expected this sort of idea from Stone, a thoughtful man despite himself. What I didn’t expect was this remarkably well-constructed, absorbing thriller, one of the best films of 2012. Where has this Oliver Stone been all these years?