Ben (Johnson), Chon (Kitsch) and O (Lively) are happy living a relatively easy Laguna Beach life funded by the boys’ pot business. But then the Baja Cartel, run by the fearsome Elena (Hayek) comes calling with a proposition, and the price of turning it down will be very high indeed...
Given his past ability to explore complicated issues in a compelling way (Vietnam, JFK etc.) you might expect Oliver Stone to use the perspective of Savages’ characters to offer up an intriguing, persuasive look at the various tentacles of the drug trade. And working from a book by Don Winslow — who spent six years researching the DEA and cartels for an earlier tome, The Power Of The Dog — would, you’d think, give him a solid resource from which to draw. Sadly, the result is something less than hoped for.
It’s pulpy, soupy stuff, presented with Stone’s trademark format-shifting style and boasting mostly heightened performances that feel as though he was going for a cross between a thriller and a telenovela. But the combination never makes for a satisfying whole. The central threesome rarely convinces, and when it’s put under threat, everything ramps up to an even more ridiculous degree. Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch and Blake Lively never truly gel, and her airy, dreamy narration does the story no favours. While the men at least manage to steer clear of stoner stereotypes, and make a fair stab at portraying their anger and drive once O is snatched from them, they still fail to come across as anything more than annoying pawns in a bigger story.
There are a few saving graces. Benicio Del Toro makes Lado into a real monster of a man, who proves time and again he’s willing to do whatever it takes to carry out his boss’ wishes and serve his own ends at the same time. One particular act pushes him beyond sympathy, but Del Toro keeps him compelling. Salma Hayek shows passion and fire — tempered with maternal concern when her own daughter (Sandra Echeverría) is dragged into the conflict — as Elena, and you buy that she might be the one person that the casually brutal Lado fears. John Travolta, meanwhile, is effectively smarmy as Dennis, the corrupt DEA agent who helps the boys out in exchange for a cut of their business. A showdown between him and Del Toro in the former’s home has the feel of prizefighters circling each other, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that standard.
What could have been an effective excoriation of US drug policy and a proper look at the violence inherent in the trade is wasted on a simplistic thriller that offers very little, especially given who is behind the camera. Sorry if that harshes anyone’s buzz.