Movie Review: Savages
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Sex, weed and fierce convulsive mayhem. Oliver Stone and Don Winslow's "Savages" are a match made in marijuana hydro heaven. And with it, the determined filmmaker who Jack Lemmon said "would shoot in hell if he could" has returned to '80s form and made a beaut.
This is vintage Oliver. At age 65, he can still grab you by the throat and, for more than two hours, make you gasp, laugh and cringe on a nerve-jangling journey.
This time it's a wild, twisting ride with a young ménage a trois. Set in the deadly world of drug wars (and the war on drugs), it's a hypothetical thriller that any day could turn real.
Stone, recently seen smoking a joint on the "High Times" cover, obviously cares about these characters — two Laguna Beach primo pot entrepreneurs and the soulful playmate who pleasures them both and, unlike the book, narrates the film.
Everything is Zen and blissful, especially on the high-quality weed grown from Afghanistan seed, until the Mexican Baja Cartel wants in on the independent dealers' lucrative action.
When the Americans spurn the offer of "a joint venture" (no pun intended), the Mexicans abduct the woman both adore and keep her caged like an animal for ransom.
In the fearless, funny book that was on nearly everybody's top 10 list in 2010, author and former P.I. Don Winslow thanks the director with gratitude "for really seeing it."
Stone not only "saw" the novel Stephen King called "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on autoload," but also optioned it, sent Winslow and Shane Salerno ("Armageddon") off to write the screenplay with his help, then filmed it with a killer ensemble cast.
Beatific Aaron Johnson ("Kick-Ass") achieves some gritty transformative moments as gentle Ben, the Berkeley-trained botanist, eco-angel and Buddhist who roams the world doing good with the marijuana score.
But Taylor Kitsch ("Friday Night Lights") owns the screen as his tough buddy Chon, the former mercenary, ex-SEAL and company enforcer with "baditude." After sinking with "Battleship" and "John Carter," Kitsch impresses here the way Mark Wahlberg did in "The Departed."
In a "Jules and Jim" redux, the friends since high school share Ophelia, called simply O for her orgasmic vocalizations. Jennifer Lawrence was slated for the role, then opted for "The Hunger Games," and Blake Lively ("Gossip Girl") took over as free-spirited, warm O.
While the love triangle takes center stage, Johnson, Kitsch and Lively are up against an acting headwind in the boffo supporting trio of John Travolta, Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro, who all let it rip.
As a dirty, double-dipping federal drug agent, Travolta goes toe-to-toe with masterful, menacing Del Toro as Lado, the cartel's mad henchman north of the border. Film buffs will pick up on an ironic homage to "Traffic" in Del Toro's final scene.
In what looks like Uma Thurman's wig from "Pulp Fiction," Hayek delivers a nuanced turn as the hard, lonely queen of the cartel. In one scene she eviscerates Del Toro in two languages. Who would have guessed that sexy Salma had, as Del Toro says, "Julio Cesar Chavez in her blood?"
M.I.A. is Uma Thurman, whose scenes as the New Age mom Ophelia calls Paqu, an acronym for P.A.Q.U. (Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe), didn't make final cut. And sadly, according to "The Huffington Post," Emile Hirsch ("Into the Wild"), terrific as the renegade accountant Spin, had his character trimmed.
Using widescreen format with anamorphic lenses, cinematographer Dan Mindel ("Mission Impossible") captures coastal SoCal's sunny palette, the trio's smoking haze and the kaleidoscopic action laced with video footage and Skype.
What will most surprise fans of the novel is Stone's reworking of the end. In what he calls the film's "Spaghetti western" finale, Stone orchestrates a different and at first shocking but satisfying denouement.
While reports of "Savages" have focused on its grisly aspects, it is, after all, a love story about a modern family. As a longtime Stone-watcher, my suspicion is that the screenwriter-director, whose dark visage can be intimidating — even scary — hides a candy heart.
In a recent PETA video, he protested the military's cruel use of live goats in trauma training drills. He defends marijuana because it helped him stay sane and human in Vietnam. Stone is, in a way, all three of Winslow's main characters — the warrior, humanitarian and lover.
And judging from "Savages," his best work may lie — you'll excuse the expression — ahead.