Ben (Aaron Johnson) is a botany expert who has learned to grow some top-notch weed and has set up a successful businesses selling it legally (California) but mostly illegally. Chon (Taylor Kitsch), his business partner, brought the seeds for that excellent weed to California from Afghanistan, where he was stationed as a Navy SEAL. Now, he also serves as the muscle. And, while muscle is something Ben has tried not to need, it looks like he could use some large men with big guns now. Elena (Salma Hayek), boss of a large and violent Mexican drug cartel, would like to go into business with them. Though the terms might seem favorable — keeping 80 percent of the profits but working with the backing of this larger “corporation” —there are some serious drawbacks, as demonstrated in videos the cartel sends out wherein people (drug dealers not willing to partner) are separated from their heads via chainsaw. At a meeting with Elena’s representatives, the men try to just give the cartel their business if the cartel lets them walk away. When that offer isn’t accepted, Ben and Chon say they’ll think about a partnership. The cartel agrees to give them time to consider it, but it becomes clear that the guys are planning to bail rather than work with these thugs. Elena sends Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to put some pressure on the guys. Unfortunately for Ophelia (Blake Lively), Ben and Chon’s shared girlfriend, she’s the presssure point. Lado kidnaps and holds her hostage as Elena tries to force the guys to do things her way.
So, Blake Lively. I pick her as the place where my problems with this movie begin in part because the movie picks her. She is the movie’s narrator (just because she’s telling us this story doesn’t mean she’s alive at the end of it, she sulkily informs us at the beginning) and the thing the movie fetishizes. She is so wonderful, we are told, that both men want her and they are willing to share her. We are asked to feel their desperation about getting her back — whatever it takes, whoever else has to die. The movie shows us Ophelia — called simply “O” — on the beach with her hair fluttering, at the mall spending her mother’s money, in pain when she’s being held captive. For all that she is the thing spurring the men to confront the cartel, O doesn’t get much of a personality beyond “sexy.” This kind of woman-as-MacGuffin is not uncommon in this kind of movie, the kind of movie full of shootouts and heists and corrupt cops (John Travolta as a DEA agent here) and suitcases of cash. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to read O — as a personification of the fragility of peace or something — but she doesn’t seem like a daring or desirable person. She seems like lazy writing.
All of Savages has that same slightly hacky feel to it, like I’m watching Oliver Stone (who directed and co-wrote this film) show me how badass he can be. It reminded me of the post-Pulp Fiction years where it felt like every movie had to have wacky violence and some kind of narrative funny business. But far too many of those movies didn’t use their gimmicks to create anything fun or original. (Consider, by comparison, the first scene of Inglourious Basterds, which was gimmicky as all get-out but one of the most fun stretches of film in recent years.) Here: the creepy Benicio Del Toro (writes itself, really), the cartel boss with a weakness, the fast-talking dirty law enforcement agent. It all feels rather wearily familiar. C-
Rated R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use, and language throughout. Directed by Oliver Stone with a screenplay by Stone & Shane Salerno & Don Winslow (from a novel by Winslow), Savages is two hours and 10 minutes long and distributed by Universal.