Oliver Stone is a prolific director, but our generation hasn’t been privy to his best work. His unique bits of Americana mostly hit theaters in the ‘80s, with the director doing his best work on films like “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Platoon.” Some of his more recent work, namely “Natural Born Killers,” also shines, but Stone has been in an undeniable decline. Thankfully, “Savages” turns all that around, a stunning return to form for the director and an aptly titled, unapologetically violent piece of distinctly adult entertainment.
Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson star as California marijuana growers/sellers Chon and Ben. Chon did tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the seeds he brought back allowed Ben to build his empire, while Chon acts mostly as security when things go south. However, in addition to sharing a business, they share Ophelia, played with lithe confidence by Blake Lively. When the Mexican cartels, led by Elena (Salma Hayek) and her muscle man Lado (Benicio Del Toro), try to get into business with an uninterested Ben and Chon, they kidnap Ophelia in an attempt to sway them.
“Savages” is defined by its impressive ensemble, and each cast member gets a chance to impress during its runtime. Kitsch’s career has been unimpressive thus far, but here he’s full of intensity and danger. Chon’s friendship with Ben is truly the center of the film, and Kitsch and Johnson turn in a really wonderful duet here, their bond coming from somewhere real and honest. Lively has been something of a divisive performer so far, failing to impress in her big screen roles, but she gives a truly interesting performance here. Stone refuses to let her character be an afterthought, a prize that Ben and Chon are fighting to win back, and Lively brings some true soul to a character that is, by design, fairly empty, letting us root for and even start to like her.
However, the old pros in the picture end up stealing the show. John Travolta, playing a sketchy DEA agent who’s on many payrolls, plays his character as very, very large and expressive, a bold decision that pays off throughout the film. Del Toro is appropriately menacing, his bushy eyebrows and mustache doing wonders for his performance. Hayek’s cartel leader is threatening but also strangely maternal, making her fascinating to watch as she navigates her dueling natures. The ease with which she slips into a new identity ultimately defines her impressive performance.
Unfortunately, “Savages” isn’t especially subtle. Stone wields its themes like a sledgehammer and throws its title around like a beach ball at a Nickelback concert. The film frontloads itself with literary references before devolving into pulpy brutality. Its most interesting thematic tangent is probably the exploration of mother-daughter relationships, especially between Hayek and Lively’s characters. Nonetheless, Stone is doing stylish, confident work, always trying something new and appropriate, and fills even small moments with unbearable tension.
The only other legitimate complaint with “Savages” comes from a deadline that Elena sets, the period in which Ben and Chon have to win Ophelia back. It’s a high-stakes finish line for the film to hit, but there’s never any sense of a ticking clock or time passing, just a series of events happening sequentially. Even so, the film moves with an undeniable sense of momentum, and is never anything less than a blast. There’s nothing quite like “Savages” in theaters right now: It’s brash, bold and bloody. Stone’s impressive return to form is one of the most distinctive, entertaining films of the summer.