I knew “Savages” was going to be an over-the-top Oliver Stone movie from the opening minutes. A “wargasm” reference was my first clue and by the time Benicio Del Toro literally twirled his moustache like a pantomime baddie I knew this wasn’t the same restrained director who gave us “W” and “World Trade Center,” this was Stone in unhinged “Natural Born Killers” mode. It’s a wild ride, but I found it more flamboyant than fun.
Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch are Ben and Chon, entrepreneurs, drug dealers and two thirds of a love triangle with California cutie Ophelia (Blake Lively). They sell a potent strain of legal medical grade marijuana but also siphon off some for illicit practice and profit, which earns the attention of a Mexican Baja drug Cartel run by Elena (Salma Hayek). She’ll do anything to create a “joint” venture, including kidnapping their shared paramour Ophelia. Revenge turns bloody when Elena’s enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), gets involved and complicated when a dirty DEA agent (John Travolta) double-crosses everyone.
“Savages” is definitely a good-looking movie from the stars to the scenery, but I thought the cast was really interesting as well as pretty. Johnson and Kitsch are good and evil, flip sides of the same coin, Lively isn’t as sprightly as her name might suggest, but she does do damaged quite well. I also enjoyed Travolta, Hayek and Del Toro chewing the scenery but I felt it hard to care about any of them. They’re all rather despicable, and I found myself hoping they’d all end up in a Mexican standoff, firing until no one was left standing.
But stand they do, so for a little over two hours we’re taken to their world of double-crosses, beheadings, threesomes and seemingly pointless close-ups of beaches, crabs and Buddha statues. Stone is a sensualist, allowing his camera to caress Lively’s face and fill the screen with beautiful images. Even Del Toro’s torture scenes have a certain glamorous élan to them, but as entertaining to the eye as it all is, it’s a rather empty experience.
The plotting goes crazy near the middle, and any comment on the morality of the drug trade, one way or another, is sidestepped in favor of an ending—and this is no spoiler—that seems to want to play both sides of the intellectual fence.
Perhaps I expected too much. “Savages” is at its black-hearted best a preposterous popcorn movie that strives to be something more, but the film’s message apparently went, like the product that makes all the characters do such horrible things, up in smoke.