Aaron Johnson, Benicio Del Toro, Demian Bichir, Don Winslow, Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexican presidential elections, Mexico's drug war, movie review, Oliver Stone, Pan, PRI, Salma Hayek, Savages, Taylor Kitsch
Watching Oliver Stone’s new film “Savages” days after the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto became the apparent winner of the Mexican presidential elections (officials recently ordered a recount of half of the ballot boxes used) makes for quite an interesting experience. In the film, El Azul (Joaquín Cosio), one of Baja California’s most dangerous drug lords, proudly proclaims: “PRI is in, PAN is out.” “Savages” is full of such topical references, an attempt to give weight to this bloody, pulpy, erotic tale that turns Mexico’s violent drug war into a Tarantino-esque cartoon. Adding insult to injury: “Savages” is screening in far more screens in this country than the far superior, more honest “Miss Bala” which was dumped into theaters early this year without much fanfare.
“Savages” pits a duo of privileged, laid-back white California surfer dudes and an equally privileged valley girl against the vicious leader of a Mexican drug cartel who wants to expand her business empire north of the border. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) –a NAVY Seal who saw action in both Iraq and Afghanistan– and Ben (Aaron Johnson) ¬–a botanist– are the owners of a humongously successful pot growing and distribution enterprise. Ben uses his share of the profits to do good in Third World countries. Chon is the enforcer who spends much of his spare time screwing their mutual girlfriend O (Blake Lively, named after Shakespeare’s Ofelia and not the lead character of Pauline Reage’s scandalous novel about a fashion photographer’s penchant for sadomasochism) and dealing with his own post-war trauma (which is rarely, if ever, explored in the film).
Under siege by El Azul, the Baja California cartel run by drug czarina Elena (Salma Hayek in a wide variety of wigs) sends Ben and Chon a nice little video full of gruesome beheadings in a gesture Elena and her cohorts hope will convince our surfer dudes on the benefits of joining forces with them. They meet with Elena’s lawyer and right hand man (the suave Demián Bichir) who makes them a sweet three-year offer that, in the real world, they wouldn’t refuse: an 80-20% profit sharing deal where the dudes would get the 80%. But Ben and Chon refuse. To convince them of their misguided decision, Elena’s very own enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro) kidnaps O.
And so begins a nasty game of one upmanship that should have been more thrilling and, frankly, more interesting than it is. For Stone, in attempting to explore the idea of what turns humans into savages, imposes a rhythm that is at times as laid back as its protagonists. Some of the action set pieces are superb: but to get there, Stone intercuts scenes of O’s imprisonment (where she is surprisingly granted every single request) with the diverse schemes concocted by Ben and Chon to rescue her from her captors, dragging the film’s rhythm down.
Stone has also casted three actors who are so bland, so uninteresting (surprisingly so in the case of Aaron Johnson, who delivered such a captivating performance as a young John Lennon in “Nowhere Boy”) as the leads that it becomes increasingly difficult to root for them. Using O as the film’s narrator is Stone’s and co-scriptwriters Don Winslow’s (on whose novel “Savages” the film is based) and Shane Salerno’s biggest misstep. Lively lacks the world-weariness, the detachment and cynicism that this technique requires. Ben’s transformation from a peace-loving, dope-selling humanitarian into a ruthless criminal is equally unconvincing.
The supporting cast acts circles around this white bread trio. Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta are obviously having the most fun as, respectively, Lado and DEA Agent Dennis. Wearing a mullet that would be the envy of the former members of Los Bukis, Del Toro fully embraces his character’s pulp fiction origins: his viper-like gaze and smile, his Mexican twang, and his posture convey equal amounts of sleaze and menace. Dennis may be at his core another one of the many smooth-talking operatives Travolta has played so well in the past, but he gives Dennis so much bite that one cannot help but smile at the ways he tries to play one side against the other.
Salma, on the other hand, turns her Mexican drug queen into a far more nuanced character: matronly, motherly and vicious, her Elena is a woman who means business. She has to be far ruthless than her male counterparts in the male-dominant world of the drug cartels. As much as I loved Kate del Castillo in the Telemundo-produced soap opera adaptation of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s “The Queen of the South,” Hayek’s performance made me wonder how a movie adaptation would have looked and sounded like with her on the lead role.
There are some smart, cunning touches in the film such as the use of “El Chavo del Ocho”’s theme whenever Chon and Ben receive an e-mail or video communiqué from Elena. But there is one that really made me want to throw a couple of things at the screen: the film’s two endings. Yep, two endings. But where a Quentin Tarantino could pull such a stunt with élan and a smart-ass grin, in Stone’s hands it feels contrived, a gimmick, a cop-out. More than a WTF moment, it feels like an F-U to the audience.