- Movie Rating -

Savages (2012)

| July 6, 2012 | 0 Comments

Oliver Stone’s Savages is a gritty, tough, and often extremely violent portrait of the world inside a Mexican drug cartel.  If this were designed to be an expose of the drug business, along the lines of something like Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant 2000 epic Traffic, it might have been something really special, but it isn’t, Stone’s film is a standard action movie entertainment from one end to the other created with great skill but somewhat cold and empty.  It has such knowledge of the inside world of drug trafficking and drug dealing that it makes you wonder why he bothered to spend such a wealth of information on a basic caper plot.

The set up for the story promises a lot more than it delivers.  It opens by introducing us to the three key players, two men and a woman.  The woman is Ophelia (Blake Lively), nicknamed O, who is a wispy new age California girl in her mid-20s whose family history is shameful and who admits that she has been doing drugs since she was in the 8th grade.  She shares her home, her heart, and her bed with two men.  One is Chon (Tyler Kitsch) a Navy SEAL who returned from Iraq baring deep emotional scars.  The other is Ben (Aaron Johnson) a pacifist who has adopted the philosophies and the lifestyle of a Buddhist.  She calls both men her lovers, yet the complications of such an arrangement are never really dealt with. Perhaps the fact that the three spend so much time high on pot may explain why.

Chon and Ben are best friends, bonded by a mutual business venture.  With Ben’s vast expertise in botany, and Chon’s supply of primo marijuana seeds that he smuggled back from the Middle East, the two have established a successful business together by virtue of the fact that they are able to produce a more potent product.  But a problem arises when they receive a video from the leader of a Mexican Cartel in which several drug dealers have their head cut off with chainsaws.  This is a signal that they are going to be made an offer they had best not refuse.

The video comes from The Baja Cartel, led by a woman named Elena (Salma Hayak) and enforced by her right-hand butcher, a nasty, soulless thug named Lado (Benicio del Toro).  She is looking to move her business out of Mexico and into the United States and she needs their scientific expertise to make her a better product to sell. The negotiations don’t go as planned, the boys quietly attempt to sever all ties in Laguna Beach and go into hiding.  While attempting to skip town, O is kidnapped, and thus begins a long and very violent trek to try and get her back in one piece.

In the fullness of what goes on in the film, this synopsis is not a spoiler.  Nothing has been given away here because what follows is a strange, and very twisty plot in which we aren’t always sure whose is double-crossing who.  The film is loaded with memorable characters, most especially John Travolta as a high-strung DEA agent who may or may not be working both sides against the middle.  Even when the movie is over, we’re still not 100% sure where his loyalties lie.  Hayak is also good as the raven-haired drug kingpin whose character keeps revealing new things about herself right up to the very end..

Yet, the best performance in the film comes from Benicio del Toro as Lado, who issues punishments and ultimatums in such grisly fashion that they make the horse head in The Godfather look like a pretty please.  There is something missing from this man’s soul and it is right there in his eyes.  He’s a cold and efficient killer whose dead stare makes him completely unpredictable.

What is best about Savages is the way in which it portrays the inside world of the drug trade, the negotiations, the number crunching, the emails and the videos back and forth which raise the stakes.  It was interesting the way the movie uses new technology as a means of communication.  Once thugs mailed a finger of their victim, now, they email a video of the finger being severed. It is interesting how the movie uses this technology to move back and forth between the desperation of Ben and Chon and the inner-workings of The Baja Cartel. Consider these things then consider how few crime films actually take the time for discussions and negotiations.

The problem is that in the end, the movie doesn’t add up to much.  Stone is still a brilliant filmmaker.  He is at the command of his instrument here.  His film looks great, it is photographed beautifully and is edited with great skill by Joe Hutshing who won two Oscars for his work on Stone’s films JFK and Born on the Fourth of July.  His screenplay, however, doesn’t leave you much to ponder when the film is over.  It is a great film while you’re watching it, but you don’t end up taking much away from the film.  The three main characters are never more than the sum of their parts so it is hard to care about them.  The caper plot isn’t all that interesting either.  It is your basic “we have to get back what they stole from us” plot, and by the end it is hard to care.  You are left to wonder what kind of film Stone had made if he had dropped the overly-familiar caper plot and just focused on the inner workings of the drug business.  It is an entertaining film on the surface, but if you’re looking for anything beyond the surface, the movie leaves you a little cold.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2012) View IMDB Filed in: Action, Thriller