O (Blake Lively) and Lobo (Benicio Del Toro) in Savages.
By Don Simpson
In what is being heralded by some as a “return to form,” writer-director Oliver Stone relies all-too-heavily upon the voiceover narration of O (Blake Lively) -- who teases us with hints that she might just be communicating with us from the afterlife -- to set up her three-way relationship with entrepreneurial marijuana cultivators, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch). You see, Ben and Chon share O, sometimes at the same time (adding fuel to the right-wing's perception of marijuana as an immoral drug), and as long as the two guys are capable of providing O with orgasms-a-plenty and a credit card (for binge shopping at the mall, of course) she will stick around.
As if attempting to take a page from John Woo's playbook, Ben and Chon have an intense brotherly bond, but they have very little in common. Chon is an ex-Navy SEAL who has been forever traumatized by harrowing tours of Afghanistan and Iraq (while having sex with O, he has "wargasms"). In other words, he is the irrational brawn of the duo. Ben is a peaceful Buddhist who donates much of his time and money to help save the world. In other words, he is the rational brains of the duo.
Ben and Chon have cultivated a strand of Afghan marijuana that clocks in at an unfathomable 33% THC and their primo product puts their exclusively high-class indie start-up on the radar of a gargantuan Mexican drug cartel (the Walmart of the drug world). The cartel's leader, Elena (Salma Hayek), wants to bring Ben and Chon's highly profitable business into her fold, but Ben and Chon naively snub their noses at Elena's offer (Chon tersely exclaims, "You want us to eat your shit and call it caviar?!"). The problem is, no one ever says no to Elena and gets away with it! Thus, Elena's dastardly-yet-cartoonish henchman Lobo (Benicio Del Toro) kidnaps O, and all the while he twirls his mustache. Luckily for Ben and Chon, they have an elite squad of ex-Navy SEALs and topnotch IT team at their disposal, which they assemble to plan a scheme to get O back. Somewhere in the middle of the whole mess is a corrupt DEA agent, Dennis (John Travolta).
As much as I wanted Savages to be a return to form for Stone, the film is way too riddled with amateurish mistakes and uneven direction to be compared to the films of his heyday -- which, in my humble opinion, came to a grinding halt in 1997 with U-Turn. Yes, I get that Savages is intended to be a trashy, fun, pulp-y, genre flick -- the problem is that we all know what Stone is (or was) capable of. I might have been willing to cut Stone a little slack if not for the clunky voiceover narration in the film's opening minutes and the horrendous closing act. Really, the only reason to watch Savages is for John Travolta and Benicio Del Toro's masterfully comedic supporting performances (especially during the one scene in which they face-off) -- though I am still quite unclear as to whether they are intentionally being funny.
Speaking of muddled intent, what is Stone really trying to say about marijuana and the war on drugs? Other than a couple heavy-handed attempts to drag medical marijuana into the equation, the perception of marijuana in Savages seems to be incredibly negative. Our perpetually stoned antiheroes -- Ben, Chon and O (who visualize themselves as a modern Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) -- have reaped millions from the marijuana business, but have lost sight on reality because of their over-reliance upon their own highly potent product. Stone seems to be telling us that marijuana turns people into stupid capitalists who are addicted to materialism.
As for the war on drugs? Well, Stone simply relishes in its ridiculousness. The running joke is that each party views the other parties as savages; but if they all just worked together, there would probably be no need for violence. I guess I expected a little more from Stone, especially given the rare opportunity of featuring a female cartel leader. But, Stone turns Elena into a woman who is just as irrational and brutal as any male cartel leaders we have seen on celluloid. The only difference is that she has a weakness -- her motherly instinct to want to see her daughter (Sandra Echeverría).