Special to South Florida Times
In Savages, three 20-somethings, Ben (played by Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and O (Blake Lively), operate a successful marijuana business in Laguna Beach, California. Their business is doing so well that they have more money than they know what to do with.
Ben, Chon and O’s perfect little setup is turned upside down when the Baja Cartel’s ringleader, Elena (Salma Hayek), decides that she wants in on their business and their profits. That’s fine with Ben and Chon. They’re looking to get out of the drug game anyway. Only it’s not so simple to leave a business like that behind.
If screenwriters Oliver Stone, Shane Salerno, and Don Winslow (who also wrote the novel of the same name) wanted to make a cautionary tale of what it’s really like to be a part of a drug cartel and how un-glamorous it is to die a slow and painful death at the hands of your comrades, they have succeeded. Seeing the carnage and the ruthless way these drug dealers, such as Benicio Del Toro’s Lado, handle their own “co-workers,” is enough to make anyone get a legal job and be happy with their ho-hum existence.
As a story, Savages tries to make parallels of its men. Ben and Chon are two sides of a coin. As O puts it: “Together, they are the perfect man.” But one has to question why Winslow and company would have their heroine involved in such a love triangle. She loses her audience’s respect within the first act and never quite regains it.
Oddly enough, the one person in the story who seems to have a modicum of good sense is drug queen Elena. It is she who coherently explains to O that if both men loved her, they would be fighting over her rather than sharing her. One has to wonder how Lively prepared herself to actively mate with Ben and Chon in the open and be so free with her affections.
Stone, who is responsible for the flops Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Alexander, has directed Savages as a gritty film, and filled it with parallels and little nuances so that the audience feels it’s getting its $11 worth. There’s his juxtaposition of Ben, the gentle one, to Esteban (Diego Catano), the gentle 15-year-old learning the ropes of drug dealing and kidnapping. There’s Lado, and Chon, both ruthless murderers.
It’s as if Stone is saying that the only difference between Ben and Chon and Lado and Esteban are their ethnicities. Stone likewise has the Mexicans and Americans calling each other savages. Most likely he is making the statement that we’re all equally savages.
Aaron Johnson gives a somewhat believable performance as Ben, a free-love individual who thinks that every situation can be solved by implementing the teachings of Buddhism. Enforcers with Mexican drug cartels, however, who carry big guns and kill ruthlessly at will, can’t be treated the way one would treat a Buddhist.
Kitsch digs into his bag of tricks to present Chon as a man who has seen so much carnage that he can’t separate his past from his present. Like many war veterans, Chon is so good at being a soldier, he can’t distance himself; he’s restless for a fight, for something to give him an adrenaline rush.
Rounding out the cast is Del Toro doing a bad impression of comedian George Lopez on hallucinogens. John Travolta is a sleazy FBI agent who can talk in enough circles to make people forget they want to kill him. And Hayek shows that her Elena has a rough exterior and a soft interior, like many a woman.
As cautionary tales go, Savages is a doozy. Like Scarface, it makes a case that the glamorous lifestyle of a drug dealer is just gloss masking the risk of life and limb, literally.
Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures