Savages is undeniably Oliver Stone. It’s dark and ultra-violent; tense and explosive; upsetting yet magnetically compelling. Plus it features an awesome cast delivering knockout performances. I didn’t love it but I thought it packed a punch and was thoroughly entertaining.
Based on the novel by Don Winslow, Savages tells the story of best friends Ben (Aaron Johnson — who is completely unrecognisable from the role that made him famous: Kick-Ass from Kick-Ass!!!) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a couple of laid back weed growers who are extremely good at what they do. That eventually becomes a problem for a Mexican cartel (led by Salma Hayek), who orders her enforcer (Benicio del Toro) to do something about it. The key to everything is the girl both boys are in love with and is equally in love with them, O (short for Ophelia — and played by Blake Lively).
It’s not a particularly mind-blowing premise, but Stone knows how to infuse each scene with his trademark intensity. There are plenty of really “full on” sequences and encounters that kept me on the edge of my seat — and sometimes all they’re doing is just talking. The film is relatively long at 131 minutes, but apart from the slightly misguided ending I found it to be thoroughly engaging.
The film is called Savages because it’s about how people, regardless of their “normal” disposition, return to their animal instincts when they become desperate. And just about every major and minor character in this gets desperate at some stage.
The performance from the entire cast is outstanding. The film’s protagonists, played by Kitsch and Johnson, are pretty good as the polar opposite best friends, but they’re practically forgotten when pitted against the powerhouse duo of Del Toro and Hayek. I haven’t seen Hayek in her Oscar-nominated role in Frida, so to me this is the best she’s ever been. Del Toro’s performance, on the other hand, was every bit as exhilarating as his Oscar-winning role in Traffic, and I do hope he gets at least nominated again at the next Oscars.
The story itself is narrated by Lively, which is a strange choice considering how irritating her voice is. But to Lively’s credit, she showed once again (following her solid performance in The Town) that she can actually act. Sure, she plays a spoiled but neglected rich girl much like her character in Gossip Girl, but she makes us believe in their unorthodox relationship.
Rounding out the cast is John Travolta, a corrupt FBI agent. It’s the same obnoxious douchebag role he is so good at (or bad at) these days (Face/Off, Swordfish, The Taking of Pelham 123, etc) but he surprised me by being unusually effective. Maybe the other actors forced him to up his game.
Oh, and Emile Hirsch has a small role as well. I think he’s great.
While Savages is undoubtedly compulsive viewing, it lacks that little extra something to lift it into the category of elite Oliver Stone films. But it’s probably still his most satisfying film in years, clearly a cut above more recent efforts such as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, W, World Trade Center and Alexander.
3.75 stars out of 5