Savages – a Vicious Califor-noir from Oliver Stone
There is so much to savor in Oliver Stone’s Savages, especially if you’re a fan of clever dialogue, pulp fiction, film noir, Salma Hayek-and John Travolta. The movie begins with Blake Lively’s mournful voiceover wherein she hints that she may not be around at the finish (no matter what the conventions of noir cinema might entail). The story she proceeds to narrate is filled with twists and turns, a tale in which two boyhood buddies have carved out a mini-empire for themselves as manufacturers of some high-quality weed (for medicinal purposes only—in the U.S. but not abroad), enjoying the good life of Laguna Beach, the protection of double-dealing DEA agent John Travolta, and the affections of Miss Lively. Their idyllic existence is shattered when a Mexican drug cartel (led by Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro) announces their intention of incorporating the boys’ business into their own—akin to a very violent equivalent of a corporate takeover. Idealistic Ben (Aaron Johnson) initially wants to go along, while roughhewn Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is in favor of bucking the syndicate. However when Benicio and company kidnap the lovely Lively to force the boys’ hand, all hell breaks loose, and it’s not too hard to tell who the savages are (hint: it’s practically everyone).
Savages brings us back to the primal, off-kilter and very violent Stone of Salvador and Natural Born Killers. The whole movie (adapted from Don Winslow’s novel by Winslow, Stone, and Shane Salerno ) bristles with energy and has style to spare. It’s a more kinetic throwback to earlier Southwest noirs like Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau as a cagey bank robber) where there are no real good guys, just clever, not-so-good guys going against some really treacherous, brutal bad guys. While Johnson, Lively and Kitsch (making up for John Carter) hold their own, the real excitement lies in the scenes spotlighting Benecio Del Toro, Salma Hayek and John Travolta. Del Toro’s scheming, dangerous enforcer is compelling, especially when he’s committing the most vile acts. Hayek’s drug “queenpin” is more than just your standard heavy; she manages to invest the part with a degree of humanity that makes her unlikely bonding with the captive Lively almost credible. Finally, Travolta does his best work in years as the fast-talking, corrupt agent with his own motives for seeing his boys prosper but who definitely has his own best interests at heart. His encounters, both with Hirsch and Kitsch, and the demonic DelT oro, are worth the price of admission.