Savages is a film that works very hard to live up to its title from the opening frames. They involve a dark room, a group of men who are bound securely, and a chainsaw’s motor being revved up. In a moment, the holder of the chainsaw is going to “go all Henry VIII” on those men (we don’t see any of the cutting).
But we aren’t watching the actual scene, we’re watching it being recorded. The recording is for the benefit of “Ben” (Aaron Johnson) and “Chon” (Taylor Kitsch). The pair run a highly successful pot growth and distribution business from their mansion in gorgeous Laguna Beach, CA. The pair, friends in high school, went their separate ways after graduation, Ben to Berkley to double major in Botany and Business and Chon off to the Navy where he became a SEAL and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to “O” (Blake Lively), Chon came back from Afghanistan with lots of cash but without a soul. “O,” who hates her given name of Ophelia and its origin, loves both men. She sleeps with them separately and together.
Ben has found a way to produce pot with a very high THC content and it is wildly popular, commanding a primo price of $6,000 per pound. But their awesome product has drawn the attention of a Mexican cartel that is expanding North while dealing with a struggle against another cartel. This particular cartel is led by “Elena Sanchez” (Salma Hayek), who is better known as “Elena La Reina.” Her chief enforcer is “Lado” (Benecio Del Toro), who will go to any extreme of violence to get the job done, without hesitation. Demian Bichir is “Alex,” her negotiator who meets with Ben and Chon after they’ve seen the video of the heads lying in that dark room, and makes them an offer.
While Elena is trying to expand to the North, she is in a struggle with a former member of her cartel, El Azul, who has formed his own. If the government shifts in the right direction, he will have their support and Elena’s chances of being victorious in the struggle between them will be greatly reduced.
When it appears Ben and Chon are hesitant to accept the Cartel’s terms, Elena orders that O be kidnapped, to get them to accept her deal. This incenses both Ben and Chon, although Ben wants to “surrender” while Chon wants to kill Elena and her entire organization. They decide to go along for the moment while they figure out a way to get O back.
Ben and Chon lean on the corrupt DEA agent they’ve been paying off for years, “Dennis” (John Travolta) for information on the Cartel they can use against them. He doesn’t want to go along but they make it clear he has no choice. He supplies them with information that they use to steal $3 million from Elena. The intention is to use that cash with what they already have to ransom her back.
Meanwhile Elena is convinced by this theft and the death of 7 of her men that there is an informer in her organization and she orders Lado to find him. Ben and Chon will stop at nothing to find Elena’s weak point (they have a high learning curve) and to free O.
The film is based on a best-selling, highly acclaimed novel by Don Winslow, who was involved in writing the adaptation. This is one film that will make you really want to read the novel even if you’re not normally a reader. The movie isn’t bad, but it drags in places and has a couple of flaws. The Cartel’s surveillance on Ben and Chon is so good, they are aware the moment that Ben returns from a trip overseas, but once they kidnap O, somehow the pair are able to move about and carry out their operations against the Cartel without its knowledge. Stone’s usual visual style may be pleasing to some eyes, but others will find it intrusive and confusing. Johnson is good in showing how the necessity to use violence will change a person while Kitsch manages to maintain the icy exterior of one who has seen too much, is shocked by nothing and who has no limit to the extremes he will go to achieve his objective.
But it’s Blake Lively who shines brightest here, building on her worn in The Town. She’s the best part of this hybrid between action film and examination of the human condition.
Savages is full of action, has interesting, rich characters and a story that has the capability of holding your attention. It just doesn’t live up to the hype, or the quality of some of Stone’s previous works.