Savages, adapted from the book of the same name by Don Winslow, concerns itself with Ben and Chon (people are called Chon now?), the two premier growers and distributors of marijuana in California. Ben (Aaron Johnson) is the more conscientious of the pair; a trained botanist and devoted Buddhist, he believes he’s doing good by growing the best quality weed, helping people who are ill take advantage of its medicinal properties, and using foreign markets as an avenue to helping poor villages with things like clean water pumps at the same time. He’s the cuddly face of the drugs industry. Chon (Taylor Kitsch), meanwhile, is Gulf War vet who never quite left the war behind, (nor did he leave behind the superior Afghanistan marijuana seeds with which they start their business) and who helps to keep the business out of trouble, primarily by scaring the shit out of anyone who tries to cross them.
Between the pair (quite literally at some points) is Blake Lively’s Ophelia, who prefers to go simply by ‘O’. O is in a happy three-way relationship with both men, so when a cartel from south of the border decide they want in on Ben and Chon’s superior weed business, they kidnap her to ensure their compliance. As a result, both men have to reconsider their life-style choices and set about trying to reclaim their girl.
Savages might not bear many of the hall-marks of Stone’s films – if anything, it’s more reminiscent of the style of Tony Scott, or even Steven Soderbergh – but Stone does spend a fair bit of time infusing the script with discussion of ways in which the drugs business operates just like regular business (shades of The Wire here, while there’s also more than a little Breaking Bad influence at play). The boys are an unexpectedly successful independent retailer, while the cartel is the big corporation. And, as their inside-man at the DEA (John Travolta, having a great time) puts it, “You don’t fuck with Walmart.”
Know who else you don’t fuck with? Benicio Del Toro. His cartel enforcer Lado is a psychotic force of nature, terrorising whoever gets in his way with a wry smile and a barely concealed glee that his job involves shooting people in the knee-caps. It’s never quite clear who’s side he’s on (other than his own, of course), but Del Toro’s performance is magnetic, and he comfortably walks away with the film. Paired with Salma Hayek’s cartel boss (complete with a rather severe wig, and who would – were it not for Del Toro – be the obvious highlight), the villains are considerably more interesting than our three heroes; the two life-long best friends who barely interact and the wishy-washy hippie chick.
The film is narrated by O, in horribly over-written style, but at least it’s true to the character. When describing Chon as a war veteran over a sex scene, she remarks; “I had orgasms. He had wargasms.” While that might send your cringe-gland into overdrive, it is at least the sort of line that hippy stoner O would find clever. Kitsch, who has had a busy summer, is utilized well as the intense veteran, while Johnson’s Ben gets the biggest story arc, reluctantly going from Buddha-worshipping pacifist to gun-toting angel of vengeance in the name of reclaiming O. While none of the trio are bad, you can’t help but rather spend time with the infinitely more captivating villains.
If truth be told, Savages a pulpy mess of a film, but the stylishly cool cinematography – California has scarcely looked better – and a raft of colourful characters (Emile Hirsch, Joel David Moore and Shea Whigham add to a glossy supporting roster) keep things afloat. The film’s climax is an audacious but groan-worthy ‘have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too’ moment, but the playful nature of the rest of the film just about justifies it. Savages is certainly too long, and it could definitely do without Lively’s narration, but this is a smart, stylish and playful dark-caper, and it’s worth the price of entry for Benicio Del Toro’s electric, unforgettable performance alone.