“Just because I’m telling you this story… Doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it,” the film’s narrator ‘O’ (Blake Lively) begins, in a face-palming American Beauty imitation. O (short for Ophelia, “the bipolar bitch in Hamlet”) is a 20-year-old beach bunny living in sunny California with her two lovers, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), who both happen to be incredibly wealthy marijuana growers. “Chon fucks and Ben makes love” – is how O differentiates between them; the former is an ex-soldier (he smuggled the marijuana seeds back from Afghanistan) and the latter a Buddhist who travels all over the world using his money to help those in need. Life seems pretty great until they get contacted by Lado (Benicio del Toro) and the Mexican cartel, who offer to merge their two business (a ‘joint’ venture, as Ben puts it). After refusing the offer, the duo are informed via Skype by Elena (Salma Hayek), the head of the cartel, that O has been captured and will be tortured until the offer is accepted, and of course, Ben and Chon decide to fight back.
Savages is Oliver Stone’s latest effort, a story based on Don Winslow’s novel of the same name, and it’s a little uncertain on its feet to say the least. It definitely looks great (I refuse to use the phrase ‘visually stunning’) – very exotic, as though Stone turned up the contrast setting, maximised the colour or shot the whole film using the Instagram app, giving it a very City of God atmosphere. The eye-achingly blue sea and the white Laguna beaches contrasted with the darkness of the cartel ‘dungeons’ don’t, however, cover up just how mediocre the rest of the film is.
It’s more than likely that Stone was inspired by the success of AMC’s Breaking Bad and decided to shape his own contribution, somehow forgetting to include any form of tension or interesting plot structure. Both stories concern the production of drugs, the DEA are involved (Savages has John Travolta in his first role for several years as police agent, Dennis) and are even set in similar locations, with the shadow of the Mexican cartel hanging over them, but sadly that’s where the similarities end, particularly because it doesn’t know what kind of film it’s trying to be.
At times it seems to play more like a horror – not a slasher necessarily, but definitely an exploitation film; elements of movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hills Have Eyes are unnervingly clear (the film actually begins with a beheading involving a chainsaw), and some of the torture sequences are simply brutal. It almost felt like Stone was restraining himself from going into full-blown exploitation territory that focused more on the Mexican cartel’s side of the story rather than Johnson and Kitsch’s problems, which would certainly have made Savages a lot more interesting to watch. Instead we get an awkward and mostly unconvincing balance of the two, and this, coupled with O’s ridiculous narration (‘I have orgasms, Chon has wargasms’…) doesn’t really give the film the thrill it could potentially have had.
This review probably makes Savages sound worse than it actually it is – it’s not that bad. Aaron Johnson gives a very good performance, similar to his character in Kick Ass: passionate yet reserved, as does Taylor Kitsch – a step up from his role as John Carter – and Benicio del Toro doesn’t do a bad job either. So a very average piece of cinema; not terrible, but certainly not an Oliver Stone classic.