Oliver Stone carefully coordinates a culture-clash between drug dealers to observe its effect on three young protagonists. In this, his adaptation of Don Winslow’s novel, part pulp fiction and part puppy dog tails, he presents us with an exciting premise that falls short of its promise.
Hollywood likes the concept of a good-guy drug dealer, and “Savages” introduces us to three of these elusive creatures. They are innovative pot growers, Chon (Taylor Kitsch), his BFF Ben (Aaron Johnson), and their wealthy girlfriend, O (Blake Lively). Chon, an ex-special forces bad-ass, supplies Ben with marijuana seeds from Afghanistan, because, he says, “it’s the world’s best weed,” from which Ben develops a powerful strain of THC-laden weed that attracts elite users. With DEA Agent Dennis (John Travolta) on the payroll, the boys become multimillionaires.
The trio lives in an oceanside Laguna Beach house where O reigns as goddess of their domestic bliss. Ben is a philanthropist, making frequent sojourns to tropical nations where he attempts to improve the lives of underprivileged children. Ben relies on Chon to collect debts owed without killing the defaulters. Their story is narrated by O, who explains the success of their menage à trois. “We were filled with love and the knowledge that we would always take care of one another.”
Why shouldn’t Ben and Chon feel as though they’ve stumbled into Paradise? O is casually beautiful, sexually generous, fun-loving, and good-natured to a fault.
When the three receive an Internet video showcasing seven severed heads and demanding that they share their pot business or be crushed by a Mexican drug cartel, Ben and Chon disagree about the best way to handle the situation. Ben wants to hand the interlopers the keys to their business and be done with it. Chon is determined to protect what is rightfully theirs. The debate is moot once the cartel kidnaps O and demands Ben and Chon’s complete cooperation in exchange for her life.
Queenpin Elena (Salma Hayek) sits atop the cartel. She lounges in her Mexican hacienda dressed to the nines, where she is pampered like a princess. With a bat of her false eyelashes, she orders enemies (and friends) whipped, sliced, or burned alive. She seems indifferent to their pleas for mercy.
Once taken, O is brought to Elena’s home where she is treated surprisingly well. However, we never understand why Elena bothers when she could kill the three neophytes and simply take their business.
She promises to return O after one year, providing Ben and Chon carry out her orders to the letter. Though highly perceptive, Elena underestimates the depth of the men’s bond with O. She means more to them than their money or their lives.
Elena’s right-hand man is sadistic enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro). He serves her every wish, rarely overstepping boundaries, but beneath his hardened exterior Lado resents Elena’s authority.
The story creates a friction between the villains. Elena, Lado and Dennis feel the weight of their burdens, functioning at the high level of awareness demanded to succeed in their double-dealing world.
Ben’s struggle to overcome his conscientious objection to violence is a silly plot point when confronted with such ruthless opponents.
Chon’s straightforward character seems to operate on auto-pilot. Is he empty inside? Lively’s O fares best of the three. She relies on her wits while held prisoner, waging a mighty and risky battle to establish herself as a person, rather than an object, in Elena’s eyes.
While the plot takes several interesting twists, seasoned vet Elena is surely smarter than her succession of foolish, pivotal mistakes.
Neophytes Ben and Chon aren’t credible as having suddenly become brilliantly devious and crafty. Somewhere in the middle lies the story I could have believed, as well as enjoyed, but that story wouldn’t make it past the starting gate of the fantasies Hollywood loves to love.