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Rated: R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout
With most movies, you can usually pick up on a director’s cues to see where he or she is leading you.
For instance, when an Oliver Stone movie begins with a group of men being held hostage, on their knees, crying, and you hear the sound of a chainsaw start up, well, you know what to expect: Over-the-top Stone, the best kind, the kind that stirs the pot. And that’s just what you get in “Savages.”
About time. If “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” put you to sleep, “Savages” should wake you up; it seems to have done the same for Stone. It’s based on a novel by Don Winslow, but in style and temperament it’s all Stone (who, like Winslow, contributed to the screenplay). The man who made movies like “JFK” and “Natural Born Killers” seemed fearless, both in what he put on screen and how he put it there. A lot of that spirit returns here.
Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are best friends, even though their perspectives on life differ. Chon is a former Navy SEAL, a shoot-first kind of guy. Ben is a botanist who wants to change the world. As a colleague puts it, he goes “all Bono” and makes trips to Africa to help the poor.
They have pooled their talent in an unusual enterprise: They grow the best marijuana in the world. This has made them enormously wealthy, as their fabulous Laguna Beach digs illustrate. And they share everything — including O, short for Ophelia (Blake Lively). She refers to both of them as the love of her life, and some early scenes make a case for it.
It’s O’s narration that opens the story (and, lamentably, continues throughout). The happy threesome is living the good life, free of law-enforcement interference thanks to a bought-off DEA agent named Dennis (John Travolta). But then one day a Mexican drug cartel comes calling, wanting in on their action. It’s led by Elena (Salma Hayek), and she means business — it’s her henchmen wielding the chainsaws in the opening scene. She’s losing out on business to a rival cartel, so she wants to expand into Chon and Ben’s turf.
Despite a subtly threatening offer from Alex (Demián Bichir), one of Elana’s lieutenants, Chon and Ben pass, Chon in insulting fashion. None of this sits well, of course, and soon, with the help of the lethal Lado (Benicio Del Toro), O is kidnapped. Chon and Ben must figure out ways to come up with the money to free her, which is when things get really gruesome.
This is, in fact, one of the more violent movies in recent memory. But Stone doesn’t let anyone off easy. Violence has an effect here, has meaning, has relevance to the story. And a good thing; otherwise it would be hard to stomach.
Kitsch’s character is one-note — he’s the muscle, the stone-cold killer. Lively’s O is somewhat vapid by design. Johnson has the trickiest role of this bunch, as Ben must go from pacifist to death-dealer in short order. Johnson, so good as a young John Lennon in “Nowhere Boy,” is up to the task.
But the supporting cast is where the film really shines. Travolta doesn’t have a lot of screen time but his weaselly agent is suitably amoral. Hayek is convincingly menacing as the ruthless Elena — who, like everyone else in the film, has a weak spot. But Del Toro is tremendous, having a blast as the slippery Lado. Just his look — with his blown-back hair, mustache and aviator sunglasses he looks like he stepped out of 1975 — is hilarious. His methods are less funny, however. Lado doesn’t let distractions like morality get in the way of his work.
As with the best Stone movies — this isn’t one of them, quite, but it’s plenty good — there is a lot of humor, most of it of the pitch-black variety. And he’s back to mixing up the look of film, sometimes from scene to scene or frame to frame, giving it all a head-trip excitement, including the ending. He’s not showing off with his message as much as with his technique, perhaps, but in “Savages,” Stone still gets his point across in stylish, provocative fashion.