Director Oliver Stone may be responsible for some of the biggest missteps in recent cinematic history (Wall Street 2 anyone?), but the filmmaker will never be forgotten for his classics, including Natural Born Killers, JFK, Wall Street and Platoon). His newest film, Savages, fiercely teeters on the edge of both extremes, and fortunately settles on the latter.
Stone, with his co-writers Shane Salerno (Shaft) and Don Winslow (whose only film credit is Full Ride), takes the audience to the back labs of a small but legendary marijuana drug business ran by two longtime California buds, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aron Johnson). They introduce us to a life in excess--sun, beaches, pot growing and money. But even with many indulgences handed to them, they still feel the need to cut back on dating expenses by
It was definitely fascinating to see these Golden State surfer dudes turn into badass criminals seemingly overnight, but it's clear the more interesting character is Ben, who is one of the film's moral compasses, so to speak. Ben's transgression from where he is at the start of the movie to whom he becomes by the end is compelling, and seems more gradual than his more angst-ridden pal Chon's further descent into violence and warfare. Meanwhile, their business associate/DEA agent Dennis comes off a bit cartoony at first, but John Travolta actually makes it work for the character.
So those first twenty minutes or so is a bit numbing, but does at least introduce and set up the characters, as well as their evolution as the film progresses. And that's right around the time when we meet the movie's more riveting characters, Elena, Lado (Benicio del Toro) and Alex (Demián Bichir). Elena is the brute cartel femme who manages to not only terrify her peons Lado and Alex, but also paralyzes the audience in fear. But she's also the other moral compass for the entire second part of the movie. She is a mom with a conscience she never shows to her male workers, but which you really only see when she is in scenes alone or with O. This is definitely one of Hayek's best roles since 2002's Frida, and one which rightfully shows off her exceptional talent as an actress.
The always awesome Del Toro is also fantastic in the movie as well, and he is seriously loco en la cebeza as Lado. But, he's also really funny at the least expecting moments in the movie. It's like he's the comic relief but also the nut of the movie. It works. Same for Bichir. who follows up his Oscar-nominated performance for A Better Life with a character at the other extreme, who also has a surprising soulful side to him.
Savages may come off choppy in the very beginning, but it does springboards to a really fantastical second half. Taking a premise that is not wholly unique, and making it unique by romanticizing not only the drug business but the lives of those involved, is not easy. The relationship between the young California people will definitely throw you at first, but it ended up being an interesting twist to a classic drug crime story, uplifted by its casual dream states and themes of motherhood and friendship. You can't knock this incredible endeavor by Stone.