Pity the small enterprise pitted against a larger rival muscling in on its turf. Especially when the business is selling the best weed in California and the competition is a ruthless Mexican cartel whose anticompetitive behaviour includes torture and murder. Capitalism is heartless in Savages, as it always is in an Oliver Stone movie.
Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are the food artisans of the drug trade, growing premium, eco-friendly weed for a discerning client base. Ben is the brains and the heart; Chon is the instinct and the muscle. The inseparable buddies share everything, including their stoner girlfriend O (Blake Lively), who says that they’re a complete man between them.
The Baja cartel that Elena (Salma Hayek) runs is — as one character puts it — Walmart and it wants a Ben and Chon aisle in its stores. When Ben and Chon are reluctant to share their product and distribution network with her, Elena kidnaps O to bend them to her thinking. From here, a violent game of one-upmanship gets underway as Ben and Chon try to recover O and extricate themselves from the unwanted business partnership.
Located in similar territory to True Romance or Breaking Bad, Savages is not for the squeamish. It is a film where Stone has a bit of fun, which comes as a relief after the leaden moralising of Wall Street 2. He piles on the body count with great gusto and throws in lashings of black humour as his story boils up to its inevitable climax. The film is an exuberant whirl of stylistic tricks, eclectic music and colourful characters that entertains right up to its limp ending.
One of the assets he has to work with is a great supporting cast, which makes a bigger impression than the two insipid protagonists. There’s Benicio Del Toro wolfing down yet another role as a ruthless enforcer and a scene-stealing John Travolta as a corrupt federal agent. The real revelation, however, is Hayek’s turn as the steely villain of the piece — a stone cold killer who wears elegant suits like Kevlar and a Cleopatra wig as a helmet.
Kitsch’s emotional range makes that of Keanu Reeves look expansive by comparison, but his jumpy, battle-scarred ex-Navy Seal Chon is an able enough foil for Taylor-Johnson’s peaceable, idealistic Ben. Lively is surprisingly good as the needy, vapid O. As her voiceover narration reveals, her intelligence and self-knowledge have long since gone up in smoke, leaving behind only hippy clichés and trite philosophising.
Savages is the best film Stone has made since Any Given Sunday in 1999. It’s all the better for the leaving the political sermonising in the subtext (something about the appropriation of 1960s Californian counterculture by The Man, or the way the war on drugs has escalated the violence of the trade, I think) and focusing instead on pulpy entertainment. It’s not a return to the form of JFK or Platoon. It is trash, but it’s first-class trash on par with Stone’s unfairly maligned 1997 crime flick U-Turn. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media