Those who like films rife with sex, drugs, more sex, violence, and more drugs have a veritable feast awaiting them in “Savages,” Olive Stone’s new film starring Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, and Salma Hayek.
Based upon Don Winslow’s 2010 novel of the same name, the film begins with the following voiceover from a woman named Ophelia, who goes by O (Lively). I’ll have more about her momentarily.
“Just ’cause I’m telling you this story doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it. This could all be prerecorded, and I could be talking to you from the bottom of the ocean. Yeah, it’s that kind of a story where things just got so out of control. Then let’s go back to where it started, here in paradise where they say God parked himself on the seventh day, but they towed him on the eighth.”
The paradise to which O refers is Laguna Beach, Calif., where she lives with her two lovers, Ben (Johnson) and Chon (Kitsch). As strange as it seems, the three of them have an unqualified love for one another, and they are living the good life because Ben and Chon grow and sell some of the finest marijuana in the world. Here’s the way O sums up their business.
“Every successful business has an origin. Ben went to Berkley and double majored in business and botany. He takes 99 percent of the violence out of the business. The other 1 percent? Well, that’s where Chon comes in.”
Chon is a former Navy SEAL and ex-mercenary, and he obviously is one tough dude. Ben, on the other hand, is pretty much of a pacifist, and thus the two make a very comfortable team, and their business is booming. In fact, they are so successful that they attract the attention of Elena “La Reina” (Hayek), the cruelly ruthless head of the Mexican Baja Cartel. She wants a piece of Ben and Chon’s business and makes them an offer that she thinks they can’t refuse.
But Ben and Chon shock Elena by not knuckling under to the pressure exerted on them by Lado (Del Toro), her extremely nasty first lieutenant. Now Elena knows there is only one way to get Ben and Chon to do her bidding, and so she orchestrates the kidnapping of O and uses her life as bargaining power.
From this point on, the film evolves into a game of cat and mouse between the duo of Ben and Chon and Elena, and trust me when I tell you that it becomes very ugly with a number of lives at stake. The members of the Mexican cartel think nothing of beheading people who cross them, and Ben makes his philosophy clear earlier in the film when he says, “You let people think you’re weak, sooner or later you’re going to have to kill them.”
During O’s captivity, Elena actually takes a liking to her hostage and invites her to dinner one evening. At one point during their conversation O expresses how much she loves both Ben and Chon, and this is when Elena shows what kind of a person she is as she says, “Let me remind you that if I had to, I wouldn’t have a problem cutting both their throats.”
“Savages” offers an intriguing look inside the world of the drug trade, and it also is a combination of an unusual love story and a buddy film. Kitsch and Johnson work very well together as Ben and Chon, and Lively has a sizzling chemistry with both of them. Although what the three of them do is a far cry from admirable, the three actors succeed in making us like their characters. In the film’s production notes, Kitsch explained why he was attracted to the role of Chon and offered an interesting analysis of the character.
“I had read the book before it had been announced that Oliver (director Oliver Stone) was involved, but there were rumors that he had optioned it. I thought, ‘Man, I would murder to play this guy.’ When I found out that Oliver was attached, well that was it. I felt that I would be a great fit.
“Chon is a guy who has been jaded from day one. He’s seen so much shit in Afghanistan that his first reaction is always to go to violence. You’ll see a different guy when he’s with Ben and O. He can let his guard down with them, maybe even laugh and joke, and that’s rare for Chon. His real purpose in life is to protect Ben and O, and he will kill to do that.”
In other key roles Del Toro is sufficiently despicable as the sadistic Lado, and John Travolta is entertaining as Dennis, a corrupt DEA agent. But the one who threatened to steal the show was Hayek in a role unlike many she plays. In the production notes, she talked about her part and provided some interesting insight into the film’s subject matter.
“I don’t get offered villains that much, so Elena was so much fun to play. She’s strong and lives in a world that is violent and scary, and usually men are in her position. It’s daunting and difficult for men but even tougher for a woman, and she’s able to handle it. There is something intimidating, almost royal about Elena. Her nickname is ‘La Reina,’ which means ‘The Queen’ in Spanish. She has to have that presence; she has to command fear and respect. Otherwise the Cartel would never work.
“I am Mexican. I’ve known different aspects of Elena’s story. It’s part of life in my country. What I hope the movie will do is make people aware of the level of the drug trade problem between Mexico and the United States. It’s not just a Mexican problem. It’s a problem we share: America and Mexico are partners in this trade. One country’s selling, and one country’s buying, and it’s slipping through the hands of both governments.”
Although “Savages” (Give it a final score of seven.) is not a film I would want to see again, it is consistently entertaining, and does offer some good suspense in the later scenes. The acting is consistently good, and it really makes you realize what a different world the whole drug scene must be because it definitely has the element of savagery associated with it.
And speaking of that savagery, I must extend my extreme sympathy to the families and friends of the shooting victims at that Colorado movie theater. At last count 12 were dead, and another 58 had been injured as the result of a wacko’s opening fire during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rising.” It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when going to watch a movie means risking your life. That was an unspeakable tragedy.