Representing a change of pace for director Oliver Stone, “Savages” is an ultra-violent crime thriller, laced with irony and darker than black humor, which makes the film more entertaining–and poignant.
The tale, which is helmed with more dynamic energy by Stone than in his recent efforts, is based on Don Winslow’s best-selling crime novel, which was named one of the N.Y. Times top 10 books of 2010.
Set in Laguna Beach, in Orange County, California, Stone and his co-writers capture the ambience of privileged and bored teens, who live in a state of aimlessness and anomie. The rich spoiled teens possess too much free time and disposable income.
But it’s the adult characters that are shadier and sleazier, like women who insist on being kept perpetually young and vibrant by being able to afford the best plastic surgeons around.
It’s a lifestyle defined by regular pilgrimage to what has become a suburban mecca, the high-end shopping mall, defined by all the famous designers’ boutques. The temperate climate and the sparkling Pacific Coast add to an atmosphere of a laid-back sheen. But is is real, surreal or faux?
O, short for Ophelia (Blake Lively) is a local girl who is familiar with the place’s homegrown foibles and charms. She thinks of herself as a unique spirit, as are her housemates, the Laguna Beach entrepreneurs Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch). Jointly, they form an extraordinary trio, sharing a strange kind of love.
Ben, a peaceful botanist aspires high–no less than to save the declining world. In contrast, his closest friend, Chon, a former Navy SEAL and ex-mercenary, is a cynic who doesn’t believe the world is worth saving.
Ben, Chon and O keep to themselves and share from the perspective of the outside world a bizarre, complex bond, whose values take some time for us to unravel. On the surface, they seem to enjoy a quiet, free and easy lifestyle, made possible by Ben and Chon’s successful business: raising marijuana. They give a new meaning to the concept of local heroes, being sort of independent impresarios, providing a product that’s in great demand.
However, as expected, Ben and Chon’s company does not remain off the grid for long. Trouble begins when their legendary weed and innovative business model attract the interest of the Mexican Baja Cartel, headed by the merciless Elena “La Reina” (Salma Hayek), her brutal enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), and her unscrupulous head attorney, Alex (Bichir). When Elena demands partnership with Ben and Chon, they are afraid to refuses La Reina, because they know the price.
But the Cartel underestimates the bond among the three friends, and soon, Ben, Chon and O wage a war against the drug empire with the reluctant assistance of Dennis (John Travolta), a dirty DEA agent, and Spin (Hirsch), a crafty accountant called.
As a result, we witness a ridiculously violent and complex plot, unfolding as a series of increasingly vicious ploys and high-stakes brinksmanship in what amount to a brutally savage battle of wills, which does justice to the film’s title.
“Savages” has its share of scary, bloody, and graphically violent moments, which Stone stages in a riveting, lively mode. If they register strongly, it’s because they are based on the notions that real-life events often mirror quite accurately our worst personal and social anxieties and fears.
What’s good about the book and the scenario, which sound trashy and sleazy, but also contain lyrical, comic, and relevant notes, is their great attention to detail, in both the narrative and characterization.
Don Winslow wrote what many critics consider to be the definitive source on the subject with “The Power of the Dog,” the story of the drug war over 30 years, from the formation of the DEA to 2005. He spent six years researching it in Mexico, Texas and California. It’s a world Winslow knows well. With “Savages,” he was prescient in seeing the business move from the Mexican cartels into California.
The genre and locale may be different, but in terms of themes, “Savages” continues to explore issues that recur in Stone’s movies: power struggles, shifting loyalties and betrayals, explorations of complex family relationships, damaged individuals that, nonetheless, under the right circumstances find their own kind of heroism.
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