Review of Savages

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Oliver Stone directs this 2012 crime thriller, based on the novel by Don Winslow. When their shared girlfriend (Blake Lively) is kidnapped, pot growers Chon & Ben (played by Taylor Kitsch & Aaron Johnson) must confront a Mexican drug cartel in order to rescue her. Benicio Del Toro, John Travolta, Uma Thurman & Salma Hayek also star.
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Movie Review: "Savages"

-- Rating: R
Length: 131 minutes
Release Date: July 6, 2012
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller

"Savages" is the latest potboiler by controversial director Oliver Stone. Based on the novel by Don Winslow, it sees Stone returning to his pulp roots, with a story about a vicious drug cartel and the two marijuana dealers who run afoul of it. Featuring an ensemble cast, "Savages" is a cut-rate thriller that sees Stone at the top of his game for the first time since "Natural Born Killers."

The film follows Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), two drug dealers who grow the best marijuana in southern California. Besides their pot-dealing business, the two also share the beautiful Ophelia (Blake Lively) better known throughout the film as O. It's a relationship of pure physicality, with very little love and affection among anyone in this love triangle.

Chon and Ben's marijuana business is successful because of their respective talents. As a former Navy SEAL, Chon was able to smuggle Iraqi seeds into the country. Ben, who has background in horticulture from his time at the University of California, creates a strand of pot from these seeds that is nothing like anything else available in the country. They keep their business running smoothly by bribing DFA agent Dennis (John Travolta), who glides onto the screen like a snake oil salesman.

Their operation catches the attention of the Baja Cartel led by Elena (Salma Hayek), who makes the boys an offer to work together that they shouldn't refuse. Of course they do and soon O has been kidnapped during a trip to a local shopping mall. What follows is a series of twists and turns that makes this film a thrilling ride for film fans looking for an action movie that is a cut above the rest.

As the film's action escalates, Stone turns it into a tale of negotiations. Ben wants O back, while Chon wants to cut his losses and walk away from her and the drug scene. Meanwhile, Dennis, who is surprisingly naïve, just wants a piece of the action from everyone. Under a less skilled director, all these moving parts could bog the film down. But Stone plays these chess pieces like a master, creating an entertaining work not only about the drug trade but also about morality when dealing with the criminal underworld.

The veteran trio of Hayek, Travolta and Benicio Del Toro all play to their individual strengths as actors. Hayek plays Elena as a femme fatale, slinking through each scene as if she were a black widow in disguise while displaying a striking yet deadly femininity. Travolta, who has the tendency to turn the camp up to 11 when playing a villain ("Broken Arrow" and "Face/Off" are two examples), keeps it relatively calm, playing the role of Dennis not as an evil mustache twirler, but as a man genuinely bemused by the issues he faces. Meanwhile, Del Toro takes the role of Elena's henchman, Lado, to the hilt, bringing an element of craziness that only he can do.

For the most part, the younger actors are solid as well. Johnson-Taylor is serviceable as Ben, making the character the most relatable of the entire cast. It's a completely different role for Johnson-Taylor, who is best known for his work in "Kick-Ass" and "Nowhere Boy." Blake Lively's role as O is essentially the damsel in distress. She's fine, but there's nothing particularly groundbreaking about her work in the role, which has more to do with the way the part is written than Lively's acting.

As for Taylor Kitsch, this is his most successful work of the summer. His first two films of 2012, "John Carter" and Battleship," were flops at the box office and were unfairly blamed on Kitsch, who works better as an actor when he's not the focal point of a film. Here, he shines as part of an ensemble, which shouldn't be too surprising, considering how great he was as Tim Riggins in the "Friday Night Lights" television series. He plays Chon in a similar way to Riggins, slightly aloof and stoic with a brooding intensity. Kitsch may not be a leading man material, but he should continue to find work as part of an ensemble cast.

What makes "Savages" so successful is Stone. This is the best work he's done over the years, and he's finally moved from trying to make large, grandiose statements about the Bush administration to making pulpy thrillers. Here he creates a pulpy tragedy that also happens to say something about the drug trade. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come for Stone and the direction he chooses to go for his future films.

Rating 4 out of 5 stars