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Savages, the latest film from director Oliver Stone, explores the post post-modern love story of marijuana entrepreneurs Ben, Chon and their mutual girlfriend O. When their lucrative drug business is threatened by a Mexican cartel run by Elena (Salma Hayek), peaceful botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson of Kick-Ass) and his sullen partner in crime Chon (John Carter’s Taylor Kitsch) decide to go on the run with the hot girlfriend they both share. However, Elena’s sadistic enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro) kidnaps O (Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively), before the trio can escape the country, setting in motion a brutal chain of events that has both sides battling to protect their own in this less-than-successful adaptation of Don Winslow’s popular 2010 crime novel.
Ophelia, who insists on being called O to avoid any comparisons to Shakespeare’s “bipolar basket case,” narrates the film, explaining the advantages of her non-traditional life with charitable Buddhist Ben, who makes sweet love, and brooding Iraq veteran Chon, who doesn’t have orgasms (he has “wargasms”). Lively’s tinny voiceover is pretentious, particularly when she’s trying to impress upon the audience just how out of control her story is. Ludicrous lines like, “Just ’cause I’m telling you this story doesn’t mean that I’m alive at the end of it,” are so laughable they will have some rooting for her character to die — or at least contract a violent case of laryngitis.
Savages benefits from Stone’s considerable political savvy and is most interesting when the director focuses his lens on the consequences of the Mexican cartels swallowing up the boutique growers in California. John Travolta, excellent here as the fast-talking Dennis, a corrupt DEA agent playing both sides of the fence, quickly gets the audience up to speed by likening the situation to Wal-Mart moving in and devouring smaller competitors. Not surprisingly, Stone shoots the daylights out of the action sequences, which are bloody, violent and almost as pretty as the brightly saturated Laguna Beach location where much of the story takes place. Del Toro and his crew of cartel assassins disguised as gardeners provide ample threat, which the director capitalizes on brilliantly, particularly in one sequence that has Lado shooting out the kneecaps of a traitorous lawyer while the ominous whine of lawnmower blades shriek in the background.
The film’s misogyny, although artfully disguised, is not difficult to spot. O is useful only as an object of desire. She is completely dependent on the two men in her life for money, drugs and protection. Hayek’s Elena may command the respect of male underlings Lado and Alex (Demian Bichir from A Better Life), but she readily admits she only inherited her power after her husband’s death. Elena also goes to great lengths to hide her femininity by using a voice-altering program that makes her sound like a man when she corresponds with outsiders. It would have been far more interesting to let Hayek own every bit of her power as a woman, especially since she is in rare form as the vulnerable yet vicious cartel boss. Whether she’s bitch-slapping Del Toro or begging for scraps of affection from her estranged daughter, it’s impossible not to sympathize with Elena or to disagree with her — especially when she tells O, “There’s something wrong with your love story, baby.”
And on this subject, Elena couldn’t be more right. Savages’ real failing is that it never shows the love between Ben, Chon and O — only the sex — which makes it hard to buy their progressive three-way affair of the heart. If Stone had thrown in one memorable scene that didn’t involve the trio having sex or doing drugs, perhaps everything Ben and Chon do to retrieve O would feel plausible, but as it stands, any deep connection can only be guessed at and ultimately, it never measures up to the ferocious love Hayek’s Elena has for her daughter. Even the dark code Lado and his cartel assassins live by conveys a deeper sense of family than that of the three sun-kissed leads, who appear to be held together more by circumstance and habit than actual feeling.
The film’s obligatory “Mexican standoff” near the end, replete with nods to the iconic spaghetti Western scores of Sergio Leone, valiantly attempts to satisfy everyone in the theater by means of a compromise so enormous it succeeds in making the whole journey meaningless. To borrow as the film does from another Shakespeare play, Savages is ultimately a tale told by an adept director “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Savages opens Friday nationwide.