High-octane action masks cliché plot in ‘Savages’

Savages
Universal Pictures/Courtesy

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A camcorder records the dimly lit opening scene: mutilated bodies of torture victims are strung up on a basement wall, their heads laying feet below in pools of blood. A feeling of unease settles over the audience and stays there throughout the next two hours of “Savages.” Frequent scenes of torture and the constant threat of violence juxtapose the scenic beauty of Oliver Stone’s rendition of “Savages.” Based on a Don Winslow cartel thriller novel, “Savages” details the plight of two American drug dealers, Chon and Ben, trying to rescue their kidnapped girlfriend, O, from the Baha Cartel.

Chon, played by Mr. “Texas Forever” himself, Taylor Kitsch, is a war veteran who provides the muscle behind the pot growing operation. Aaron Johnson is Ben, a UC Berkeley grad with a knack for botany and an altruistic view on life and the drug trade. Together they build an empire in Laguna Beach, growing and selling cannabis at home to cancer patients and across the border to large cartels. After a tense meeting with some Mexican mobsters, the best friends decide to lay low and get out of the business for a while. Just when they think they’re out, however, the cartel pulls them back in by kidnapping their shared girlfriend, played by the stunning Blake Lively.

Lively narrates the film, adding character background, insight, and the embarrassingly stupid phrase, “wargasm.” Although the character of O (short for Ophelia) is pivotal to the whole drama, “Savages” might have been improved by narration by Ben and Chon instead. Ben is by far the most complex, conflicted character in the film and his transition from a Buddha-following philanthropist to a murdering savage is markedly more interesting than the numbing violence to which it takes backseat. In contrast, the battled-scarred vet, Chon, starts as a savage free from the fear of death and remains chillingly detached throughout the film.

Nothing about this story is traditional. The love triangle is an isosceles, the murderers cross themselves and take pictures of their deeds on camera phones and the chief bad-ass on the Mexican side loves his Starbucks. The elegant-but-ruthless head of the cartel is Elena, a.k.a. Madrina (Spanish for godmother), whose cruelty towards her enemies is matched by her devotion to her children. Salma Hayek is terrifying and intense as Elena, making Tony Soprano look like a Disney character. John Travolta, who plays a corrupt DEA official named Dennis, provides the film’s comic relief. Dennis’s jumpiness when the cartel men are around proves that he may be the only character appropriately stressed out by the whole situation, and if there is such thing as a comedy stabbing, he definitely gets one in this film.

“Savages” is bold and sometimes intentionally over the top. The violence is hyper intense, making large portions of the film difficult to watch. While O is not a particularly endearing character, the scenes of her being mistreated by Lado (Benicio Del Toro) are, to say the least, uncomfortable.  Extraneous characters are blown to bits and brutally tortured throughout, but Stone does not leave the audience without any sort of visual relief. Dan Mindel’s cinematography is impressive, with breathtakingly beautiful shots of the California coastline, Indonesian rivers, and gritty destruction set on a Native American reservation. The soundtrack is confident but understated and features everything from Brahms to Electric Light Orchestra.

Earth, sun, water and blood combine to produce an energizing thriller that will stress you the hell out and maybe make you wish you had not seen it. It is not enjoyable per se, but “Savages” is a must-see summer film about a topic that is not only highly relevant, but often under discussed.