Three-time Oscarr-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone returns to the screen with the ferocious thriller Savages, featuring the all-star ensemble cast of Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Emile Hirsch and Demian Bichir. The film is based on Don Winslow's best-selling crime novel that was named one of The New York Times' Top 10 Books of 2010. Laguna Beach entrepreneurs Ben (Johnson), a peaceful and charitable Buddhist, and his closest friend Chon (Kitsch), a former Navy SEAL and ex-mercenary, run a lucrative, homegrown industry-raising some of the best marijuana ever developed. They also share a one-of-a-kind love with the extraordinary beauty Ophelia (Lively). Life is idyllic in their Southern California town.until the Mexican Baja Cartel decides to move in and demands that the trio partners with them. When the merciless head of the BC, Elena (Hayek), and her brutal enforcer, Lado (Del Toro), underestimate the unbreakable bond among these three friends, Ben and Chon-with the reluctant, slippery assistance of a dirty DEA agent (Travolta)-wage a seemingly unwinnable war against the cartel. And so begins a series of increasingly vicious ploys and maneuvers in a high stakes, savage battle of wills.
A frenzied ground bloom flower of a novel, Don Winslow's Savages is an ultra-black amorality tale that's saved from nihilism by some unexpectedly lovely character notes and the sheer rocketing force of the prose. This cinematic adaptation (directed by Oliver Stone, who knows a thing or two about raising a ruckus himself) captures much of the propulsive energy of its source material but can't quite get a handle on the human element. Kicking off with a grisly demonstration of how not to handle power tools, the story follows lifelong friends Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch), and O (Blake Lively), who benevolently run a top-tier marijuana enterprise in Southern California under the protection of a crooked cop (John Travolta). Once the quality of their product attracts the Mexican cartel, however, the not-so-heroic trio find themselves forced to confront the dirtier aspects of their business. Stone, in his first film since 2010's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, keeps his more excessive tendencies in check for much of the running time, with his trademark kinetic style serving to support rather than overwhelm the already-lurid plot. Unfortunately, the film's gonzo pace gives little space to illuminate the complicated relationship among the main characters, which gave the novel its tragic backbeat and, perhaps more importantly, kept them a moral notch or two higher than their opposition. Here, no matter how game the leading performers are, their lack of substance makes them quickly pale next to Salma Hayek's weirdly sympathetic drug lord, Travolta's gleeful weasel of a policeman, and the magnificently bedraggled Benicio Del Toro, as a henchman with an agenda of his own. Viewers in the mood for a guilty rush should find Savages more than satisfying, but don't be surprised if your eyes keep sliding over to the bad guys. --Andrew Wright