Oliver Stone has never made a movie based on an Elmore Leonard novel. But his new film Savages comes close.
This twisty tale of American ingenuity, Mexican drug cartels, corrupt officials, ex-military assassins, and a three-way relationship plays like a product of Leonard's mind, but is actually based on the best-selling novel by Don Winslow, who cowrote the script with longtime friend and collaborator Shane Salerno (the 2000 Shaft remake, and 2007's AVPR: Aliens vs Predator -- Requiem) and Stone.
Savages is the frenzied story of longtime best friends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) who run a successful southern California operation selling a potent strain of marijuana. Ben is the brains of the business, a surf-loving hippie who wants to change the world, and spends his money and time doing just that in impoverished countries. Chon is the muscle, a war veteran who lost his innocence and soul somewhere in Iraq and now only wants to protect Ben from outsiders as well as his own naivete. O, short for Ophelia (Blake Lively), is the beautiful California beach blonde they willingly share.
Life was blissful for the trio, O says during the film's opening narration, until the leader of the ruling Mexican drug cartel, Elena (Salma Hayek), wants to partner with Ben and Chon. They reject her offer and she sends her enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to change their minds by kidnapping and threatening to torture and kill O, forcing Ben and Chon to fight back. With the help of a crooked DEA agent (John Travolta), the best friends wage a bloody personal war against Elena that yields several clever revelations along the way.
Johnson and Kitsch are believable as the yin-yang of O's life. Kitsch, in particular, makes an impression after failing in John Carter and Battleship. In a surprisingly deep role for Lively (Gossip Girl, The Green Lantern), O's character pendulum swings between pampered rich girl to cunning survivalist.
Del Toro is mesmerizing as the devious cartel hatchetman with a gift for self-survival -- a slightly less lethal version of Javier Bardem's unstoppable death machine in No Country for Old Men -- while Hayek gives nuance to the attractive and ruthless leader who once upon a time sacrificed her role as a loving mother to replace her murdered husband as head of the cartel and to protect their children from the same fate. Elena is drawn in particular to O, who reminds her of her own daughter -- who despises her mother for what she has become.
Savages is stacked with a talented cast; so much so, last year's Best Actor nominee Demian Bichir (A Better Life) would be an afterthought were it not for his horrifying death after his fall from grace as one of Elena's trusted counsel.
There's little gratuitous about Savages, as Stone shows considerable restraint in staging the violence and blood and instead concentrates on building a less-stylish, but-better-executed film with a more subtle message.
Stripped of the pretense and heavy-handed moralizing that dogged W. and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Savages represents a minor comeback for the director, who is in need of reconnecting with audiences and himself as a filmmaker. Stone is a man of considerable opinion and with a stubborn conscience that demands he advocate his views through his craft, but he has been so consumed with converting audiences to his left-of-left thinking through film sermons that he forgot his ultimate responsibility to entertain.
With no ideological agenda to weigh him down, Stone is free to focus on crafting a steady and sturdy thriller. And to makes a better movie -- and return to form -- in the process.
Directed by Oliver Stone. Screenplay by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, and Stones, based on Winslow's novel. A Universal Pictures release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated R for drug use, strong sexual content, strong language, and graphic violence. Running time: 130 minutes.
Critic's rating: *** 1/2
Chon ...........Taylor Kitsch
Ben ........... Aaron Johnson
Ophelia ......... Blake Lively
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.