Oliver Stone takes on the Mexican drug cartels with a dumb, high-style action romp.
Two years after Oliver Stone revisited the rapacious world of finance in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, he explores a different but no less amoral business environment in Savages – Mexico’s drug war. But rather than strive for the political breadth and complexity of, say, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, Stone seems content to indulge in the cheap, immediate satisfactions of sex and violence. Which would be fine, if only the result weren’t so overwhelmingly stupid.
Our heroes are former soldier, Chon (Taylor Kitsch), and hotshot botanist, Ben (Aaron Johnson), for whom things look pretty sweet. When they’re not running an illicit, multi-million-dollar marijuana dealership, they’re hanging around their deluxe oceanfront pad in Laguna Beach and taking turns to share fluids with communal girlfriend, Ophelia, known simply as ‘O’ (Blake Lively). But when a vicious Mexican drug cartel lays eyes on their business, things take a darker turn. The pair’s reluctance to work with the cartel results in O being kidnapped by cartel strongman Lado (Benicio Del Toro) and held captive by big boss Elena (Salma Hayek).
The boys swear they’ll do as the Mexicans say, while hatching a plan to save O and bring down the cartel from the inside. There’s a decent pulp thriller buried somewhere inside Savages, and it occasionally comes to the surface, usually when Del Toro’s doughy, mulleted psychopath slouches onto the screen. Both he and John Travolta (as a crooked DEA agent) have fun chewing the scenery, and an explosive raid on a cartel hideout shows that Stone’s talent for thrilling action set-pieces hasn’t deserted him.
But the film fails to build momentum. Stone has remembered to bring a grab-bag of stylistic flourishes recycled from Natural Born Killers – coloured filters, angled shots, sped up sequences, baroque violence scored to classical music – but has forgotten to give his characters any depth, or his narrative any sense of urgency. The central threesome are so singlenote – Ben, conflicted; Chon, pragmatic; O, naive – that their relationship doesn’t feel real, and their predicament is difficult to care about.
That the film sustains any kind of tension at all is down to Lado’s propensity for sudden acts of sadistic violence. And it’s all so aggressively dumb. When the idea is floated that the Mexicans and the Californians each think of the other as savages, you get the sense that Stone will build up some case for moral equivalency between the two. But it’s quickly discarded. You’re never in doubt which side to root for, or invited to condemn Chon and Ben’s shallow lifestyle.
Too slowly, the film builds towards a climactic face-off that Stone botches with a last-minute burst of gimmickry and a cop-out ending. He’s never been the most subtle filmmaker on the block, but he would benefit from crediting his audience with some level of intelligence, at least as far as this movie is concerned. After all, we’re not savages.
Stone takes on the Mexican drug cartels. Expect blood and doped-up editing.
Bloody, and occasionally fun, but dumber than a box of rocks.
A disappointing dip in the shallow end. Forgettable.