Leave it to none other than Oliver Stone to deliver this summer’s most satisfyingly pulpy action flick. Stone might as well have been pronounced dead to the world of cinema over the past decade. Let’s face it, the guy hasn’t been taken serious since the mid 90′s, a decade in which he delivered the bulk of what he’s most lauded for. Since then, he’s put out middling to below average fare, often reaching for greatness and coming up short time and time again. With Savages, Stone has regained much of his long lost bravado, and looks to have had a ton of fun in the process.
In broad strokes, the film follows successful and free spirited drug dealers/entrepreneurs Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who run a lucrative and surprisingly safe homegrown industry — the pot that they grow is the best, as it has provided them to live a free spirited lifestyle in Southern California with Ophelia or “O”, the girl they both share, played by Blake Lively. The trio are well off and living without worry until a ruthless Mexican cartel tries to force their hand and make them partners; a risky deal that would essentially spell the end of Ben and Chon’s way of doing business. The agreement is botched and the cartel end up kidnapping O to flex their sadistic muscle. What ensues is an often convoluted and messy cat and mouse stand-off of wills between each party, with plenty of Stone’s trademark bloodshed to spare. The film is told from Ophelia’s perspective in flashback narration, a technique most similar to Keira Knightley’s in Tony Scott’s Domino. We’re pretty sure we may be thrown for a loop at some point in the film, as Ophelia’s opening narration signifies that she may or may not be alive at the end of the film.
Based on a novel by Don Winslow, Savages seems like it would play better on the page, but this isn’t necessarily the case. A lot of the plot dynamics are a retread of tropes we’ve visited before. Stone’s film routinely erases our palettes of said genre dwellings, as the director’s enthusiasm for the material and the characters outshine any pre-conceived notions of how we think the story might play out. Stone clearly romanticizes the plight of the young lovers, gracefully finding beauty in light of their doomed circumstance. The film is actually at its most playful and humorous when the three young leads aren’t on screen. It’s those vets who steal the show here, as del Toro, Hayek and Travolta each turn in devilishly grinning over-the-top performances. Hayek and del Toro are in tandem as the cartel’s leader Elena and her brutally violent enforcer Lado. The former sports a Cleopatra wig and doesn’t feel ill-equipped given her cartel role. Del Toro is a dangerous presence any time he’s on screen, clearly working within his comfort zone. Travolta plays Dean, a DEA agent caught between both worlds. Emile Hirsch also shows up as a hacker, his odd casting suggests a career in limbo.
Savages works because it doesn’t apologize for what it is. What is it? It’s nothing more than a gloriously unapologetic violent summer thrill ride. At its best, the film and its world seem formed from the remnants of Stone’s best work, where shock and controversy went hand in hand. Gone (for now) is the guy looking to tap into current stateside “timeliness.” Above all else, Stone is critiquing the expectations placed upon the genre Savages is deftly working through. The film’s protagonists are our surrogate into the texts’ highly glamorized portrait of the American dream gone astray. The meta-texture of the film is often referenced; after all, Savages is an updated version of Scarface crossed with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Jules and Jim for the digital age. Much will be made of the film’s so called “botched ending,” which is vaguely reminiscent of a scene in Haneke’s Funny Games (you know the scene). Savages isn’t so much a re-awakening for Stone, as it’s a successfully diverting piece of entertainment that doesn’t feature a comic book hero. Gun to my head, it’s the sleeper hit of the summer.