If you haven’t read the best-selling novel by Don Winslow, then the first tip-off that Savages is going deep into the ultraviolent underworld of drug dealing is the sound of a chainsaw being revved—and then swung in the direction of kneeling victims about to be executed. Oddly enough considering this is an Oliver Stone adaptation, the story is told by Ophelia (Blake Lively), called O for short, a typical California girl in an unusual living arrangement: She shares a beach house with best friends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) in a ménage a trios. Her narration tells us things that are already noticeable, such as her descriptions of Chon, a scarred-for-life Navy Seal who smuggled a superior strain of pot seeds out of Afghanistan; and Ben, a committed pacifist and the CEO of their specialty marijuana company. Together they make the perfect man, she says as the three of them tumble into bed.
Business is booming, which is why a video of the execution shows up on Chon’s computer. The Baja cartel wants in, and though their crude and bloodthirsty business tactics seem prehistoric compared to Ben’s socially responsible marketing system, the cartel gets them where it hurts by kidnapping O. The machinations, double dealings, and mutual destruction of this hostile takeover are excitingly unreeled as expected from Stone, who hasn’t lost his technical finesse with all things macho.
Upping the ante is that Chon and Ben are grounded in reality, and played as such by Kitsch and Johnson. Even their peacefully shared love for O—a poor little rich girl with a drug habit and not much else—is involving, even if she is foremost the vehicle for their own love. As with the mother in The Tree of Life, O is meant to represent an aspect of the eternal feminine (not exactly a Stone specialty): She is elemental in sensual, superficial Laguna Beach, but as her lovers are acutely aware, she won’t last long in cartel captivity. Their desperation to reclaim her gives this slick update on America the Violent (done better in Stone’s Natural Born Killers) the propulsive force of doomed love. At least for a while.
Benicio Del Toro as the cartel’s top enforcer is intensely creepy-sleazy-scary, while John Travolta as Dennis, a corrupt DEA agent who has remarkably held onto his humanity, adds moral and narrative complexity to the ratcheting plot. Yet the film’s second half belongs entirely to Salma Hayek as Elena, the cartel’s sophisticated kingpin. Having inherited the business from her slaughtered husband and sons, Elena swings between her maternal and ruthless instincts. Playing her as an unstoppable force of nature, Hayek dominates everyone and everything in her path, and not to the story’s benefit. But by this point the cross purposes of the rival drug rings—and their differing styles of savagery—have become so violent that the story loses its earlier intrigue. And Savages concludes with a cheap-jack gimmick that exposes how soulless it was all along.