Poor Taylor Kitsch. Oliver Stone’s Savages is the third crappy movie he’s headlined in the past four months. In concept, this movie should have been fantastic. Savages has Oliver Stone finally returning to the crime genre after a long break from making films like Scarface and Natural Born Killers. The story at least appears to tackle the prescient matter of Mexican drug cartels, and the cast includes some damn good actors including Benico Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Aaron Johnson, and Demian Bichir. And yet, a few colossal missteps from the screenwriters sabotage the entire production.
Savages focuses on upper class beach bunny Ophelia (Blake Lively) and her two simultaneous lovers, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch). Ben and Chon, it turns out, manufacture the best weed in the entire country, and they’ve become millionaires doing it; Ben is a sensitive Berkley-educated hippie who excels at botany, and Chon, the damaged ex-Navy Seal and war veteran, serves as the organization’s muscle. Ben and Chon spend their downtime sharing Ophelia between each other in a creepy three-way sexual relationship; sometimes they each take a turn with her, and sometimes they fuck her together. My interpretation is that the two men are really attracted to each other, but they’re just not quite gay enough to dispense with the girl altogether.
But all is not perfect in the paradise of Laguna Beach, because a ruthless cartel headed by Elena (Salma Hayek) and Lado (Benico del Toro) maintain designs on moving north and swallowing up Ben and Chon’s operation. When the boys refuse to capitulate, the cartel snatches the girl, inspiring the two potheads to carve a bloody swath through a small army of Mexicans to get her back.
The biggest mistake the filmmakers made was to have Ophelia serve as the focal point of the movie. As Ophelia, Blake Lively provides near constant narration in a stoned, dispassionate voice. We see the story through her eyes. Her kidnapping sets the stage for all of the murder and brutality to come as her drug dispensing boyfriends set out to save her. Ophelia is our entry point into this tale of drugs and violence, and she’s the character we’re clearly meant to empathize with, but why should we?
During the movie’s two hour and ten minute runtime, Oliver Stone never gives us one reason to care about Ophelia: She’s vapid, self-pitying, irresponsible, and entitled. Before being kidnapped by Elena’s crew, her only purpose, apparently, is to lie around on a piece of expensive beachfront property all day, smoke weed, and wait to get fucked by Chon, Ben, or both at the same time. We never see her doing anything beyond laying on the beach, smoking pot, having sex, and spending money that isn’t hers.
Truth be told, she’s essentially a mellower version of Michelle Pfeifer’s coked-out gold digger in Scarface, or, alternatively, a less conniving version of Bridget Fonda’s pothead beach bunny in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. How exactly is it a tragedy if a Mexican cartel decides to off her? I understand why our two pot-growing protagonists want to save her-she’s apparently a fantastic lay- but I don’t see why the audience should care. I certainly didn’t. But the filmmakers here seem to single-mindedly accept the premise that the kidnapping of a wealthy, long-legged blonde is the worst tragedy of our time.
One passage of the film is almost darkly satirical if not for the fact that it’s filmed in a completely straight-faced manner. After being strong-armed by Elena’s thugs, Ben and Chon plan to ditch their business and leave the country. They tell Ophelia to get her passport because they’re going to leave for Indonesia that day; as a protective measure, Chon sends one of his ex-Navy Seal buddies—the only black guy in the entire movie—along after her in another vehicle as a bodyguard. Instead of simply going to her mother’s house to retrieve her passport as she promises, however, Ophelia opts to also go on a spending spree at the mall—paying for everything with a credit card, of course. During this gross display of excess in the midst of a worldwide recession, the ex-Navy Seal is shot in his vehicle by a cartel thug posing as a cop, and the cartel goons then kidnap the girl.
Once our two heroes find out their girl has been kidnapped, they fly into an absolute frenzy, but no one ever bothers to ask what the hell happened to the war hero, ex-Navy Seal who was brutally executed in his own automobile while guarding the girl. The protagonists and the film itself seem completely unconcerned, and the subject of the murdered veteran never comes up again. But then, I guess that’s probably because he was black.
The three best characters in Savages are Benicio Del Toro’s slimy cartel enforcer, Salma Hayek’s mob boss, and a sleazy DEA agent played by John Travolta, and they’re the bad guys. With a thick, bushy mustache and sporting an Elvis-styled pompadour, del Toro gives one of the most fascinatingly scuzzy performances of his career; Oliver Stone finally puts Travolta’s goofball tendencies to good use by casting him in what amounts to the comic relief role of the movie as a strained, high-pitched bad cop; and Salma Hayek proves that she was always more than a fantastic body by chewing the scenery as a terribly insecure mob boss. The rest of the cast acquit themselves nicely – there isn’t a bad performance in the movie – but Hayek, Del Toro, and Travolta get the most wildly entertaining characters, and I wish there was more of them. One scene in which Travolta’s DEA agent talks himself out of getting whacked by Del Toro was the highlight of the movie for me.
Unfortunately, Savages mostly focuses on its three exciting-as-flat-soda main characters as they attempt to reunite and continue their happily hedonistic lifestyle. The movie doesn’t qualify as an action flick, because it boasts only two major action sequences. Those hoping for a gritty, realistic drama zeroing in on the activities of Mexican drug cartels will walk away disappointed, because this story of two blue-eyed, upper class white kids from Laguna Beach toppling a vicious cartel is pure suburban fantasy. Instead, Savages is mostly a tepid thriller built around three narcissistic, unlikable characters. Skip it.