“Savages” marks director Oliver Stone’s return to filmmaking after a lapse of several years. It includes many of Stone’s signature features: imaginative cinematography; a varied, sometimes quirky score; an edgy story and colorful characters; and a giant dollop of violence. Based on the novel by Don Winslow (who collaborated with Stone and Shane Salerno on the screenplay), the movie fails to catch the text’s narrative tone, which constitutes much of its appeal. It also omits Winslow’s commentary upon surfer culture and American life on the West Coast. We are left with a somewhat unusual but not particularly engrossing melodrama, bent upon shocking rather than edifying us.
The opening focuses upon three denizens of “paradise,” or “where God rested on the seventh day.” The exact locale is Laguna, CA, and the trio, a ménage a trois, are Chon (Taylor Kitsch), Ben (Aaron Johnson), and Ophelia, aka O (Blake Lively). They seem an odd mix: ex-SEAL Chon’s a vet of the Middle East wars; Berkeley grad Ben uses his double major in botany and business to help Third World villagers; and community college dropout O has left her rich kid existence to form her own little family with the boys. Their happy existence is paid for by some really high-class marijuana, the seeds for which Chon has smuggled back from Afghanistan. Ben has supplied the scientific knowledge and the business acumen to grow, enhance, and distribute the produce. Chon supplies the muscle to keep the pipeline flowing smoothly to their millions of satisfied customers, legal and otherwise. O keeps the boys happy and herself stoned. Not surprisingly, their primo dope has earned a certain reputation and the envy of their competitors.
In particular, a northern Mexico drug cartel headed by Elena (Selma Hayek) and her enforcer, Lado (Benecio Del Toro), decides to muscle in on the lads and “merge” with them. At the film’s outset, the cartel sends Ben and Chon an e-mail attachment showing the beheading of those who have opposed them. The use of business terminology in the subsequent negotiations disguises and ironically comments upon the brutality or “savagery” of the operation, a decidedly hostile takeover.
When the American dudes resist, then decide to cash in their business and run, the bad guys kidnap O and force them to cooperate. How to get her back without getting her and themselves killed forces them—particularly the idealist Ben—to see reality in a harsher light and adopt Chon’s warrior methods for dealing with it, leading to the final, inevitable shootout.
In the lead-up to the climactic moments, there are confusing double and triple crosses, some of them involving John Travolta playing a corrupt DEA agent. There are also stabbings, whippings, and people being set on fire, as the movie’s previous occasional lightness of tone completely disappears. The last half hour or so feels more like a Sam Peckinpah movie, its “R” rating richly deserved.
Both warring sides regard each other as savages, the drug lords displaying “family values” and the Americans love and loyalty while all are busy torturing and killing each other. Stone provides two endings—one logical and one “happy”—for us to choose between, presumably doing so with a certain ironic motive. But making the rather vapid O, our sometime narrative guide, mouth both endings blunts the impact badly.
If you want to experience the pleasure of an original narrative voice, read the novel instead. (I know, that’s heresy for a movie reviewer to say, but, hey, I’m an old English teacher!) Stone’s heavy hand on the script and the overall structure reduces what might have been an arresting film into just another sensational but failed adaptation.