Opening with a video of a violent execution and beheading, Oliver Stone’s Savages begins its story with a look into the brutality of the Mexican drug trade that has become an all too familiar part of daily news in recent years. It’s serious, it’s deadly, and the people involved in it are not to be messed with.
However, when that story also centers around the kind of drug kingpin who likes to score said video threats with video game music, end them with goofy looking animations, and can be easily taken down by a couple of twenty-somethings, let’s just say that said story quickly loses that gut punch reality of many powerful drug or war-centered movies that have come before it.
Introduced by O, short for Ophelia (Blake Lively), Savages is basically the story of O and her boyfriends, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), who run one of the most successful pot growing businesses in the United States. When the movie begins, they have been approached by a major Mexican drug cartel who has asked them to join them. When they turn down the offer, the cartel takes O. And when O is taken, Ben and Chon are quick to hatch a plan that keeps O alive long enough for them to mount an offensive and get her back.
Introducing a daughter of Salma Hayak’s drug kingpin Elena and a dirty DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) early on, it’s really not that difficult to figure out how Savages will play out. And pairing Savages‘ lack of serious terror with any real sense of surprise or suspense, what we are left with is a movie that hooks you with neither enough brutal reality nor absurd fantasy to stand out at all.
Throw into the mix many random overly artistic moments and stereotypical characters who are never developed enough to carry the story in themselves and Savages is just kind of an odd mix of ambition and ideas that never quite pay off.
Beyond the basic drug story, the other part of Savages that is also difficult to fully embrace and see for what the story wants us to see it as is the love triangle between Chon, Ben, and O. We’re told they all love each other equally, never is there any drama between the three, and in the end, their relationship and love is held up as the one good and enduring value they have and will always have wherever they may live or whatever their situation may be.
As Chon tells Ben when things start to go wrong, the only thing that matters now, the only consideration they should have inside their heads is that “O is not going to die.” Romantic, maybe… but let’s just say that under that banner, so is the door opened for all variety of murder, the framing and torture of an innocent man, and suicide.
Cut to Travolta’s Dennis and you get a less romantic look at essentially the same idea. Whether he ever loved his wife to the same extreme that Chon and Ben love O is not clear. But with her near death from cancer, Dennis’ only love and consideration for which he makes decisions by the time we meet him seems has become money.
Cut to Hayak’s Elena who only came to be the head of her drug cartel after her husband and almost every one of her children was killed, and you see the result of that love lost not merely replaced with a material substitute, but turned into a life lived in vengeance for that loss… a life not unlike that of Iraq veteran Chon, who lives constantly on the offensive and will not hesitate to take the life of anyone else who threatens, dishonors, or messes with that which his fellow soldiers gave their lives for.