Oliver Stone’s first hit as a director was “Salvador,” way back in 1986, which looked at a small Latin American nation’s descent into political murder, funded mostly by its larger neighbor to the north. Now, with “Savages,” he seems to have come full circle, as Latin America’s plague of disappearances and torture crosses back into the country that bred it. (And if you doubt that claim, read up on what the U.S. military teaches its Latin American counterparts at the notorious School of the Americas.)
Stone always aims to be topical, and “Savages” focuses on both California’s barely illegal marijuana trade and the headline-grabbing violence of Mexican drug cartels, kind of like “Blow” meets “True Romance.”
Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are a pair of dealers who share a lover, O (Blake Lively), at their upscale Laguna Beach home. Their operation is efficient and basically pretty chill, under the leadership of Buddhisty Ben, but if someone crosses them, Iraq War veteran Chon has no problem getting medieval on them. O, noting their different approaches in bed, suggests that “together they make one man.”
Triangulation is a hallmark of Stone’s films: Think of the young private torn between idealistic and callously pragmatic sergeants in “Platoon,” Jim Morrison and his two lovers (flower child and witch) in “The Doors,” or even “Alexander,” with both Roxane and Hephaistion vying for the king’s affections. Where these relationships often presented clear moral choices in Stone’s earlier films — most notably “Wall Street” — “Savages” presents the menage a trois as an all-inclusive loop, a fusion of light and dark, hetero and homo, yin and yang.
A desperate Mexican cartel led by Elena (Salma Hayek, in full dragon-lady mode) tries to muscle in on Ben and Chon’s high-grade dope business, and when the boys politely refuse, O is kidnapped, leading to an escalating cycle of retaliation that drags in corrupt FDA agent Dennis (John Travolta) and cartel assassin Lado (Benicio Del Toro).
Much of the film centers on Ben, who — like so many Stone protagonists — loses his innocence step by step in the battle to recover O. Chon, on the other hand, believes the worst of mankind, and is rarely proven wrong; when Ben suggests getting out of dealing and into socially conscious work, doing something to “change the world,” Chon tells him to grow up: “You don’t change the world; the world changes you.”
Their antagonist, Elena — based on Mireya Moreno Carreon, the first female leader of the brutal Zetas cartel — is the typically malign parent figure from so many Stone films, endangering the very loved ones she claims to be protecting.
While the plot is quite involved, it becomes a bit of a stretch at times; Stone seems to be having the most fun when he gets to cut loose, whether that’s the savage, choppy editing of the kidnap-dungeon scenes, the kush-bud hallucinatory reveries in saturated color or the slow tracking of entwined bodies in a threesome. While not Stone’s best, “Savages” will appeal to fans of his “Natural Born Killers”/”U Turn” period.