Savages begins with an image of severed heads, and like so many Oliver Stone films, the story sounds as if it has substance beneath all its violence. A Mexican drug cartel has sent this head-rolling video as a warning to a trio of beautiful young things living in idyllic Laguna Beach: Andrew Johnson as Ben, a smart and sensitive grower of the world’s best weed; Taylor Kitsch as Chon, his tattooed, hot-headed Iraq-vet partner and best friend, and Blake Lively as O. (for Ophelia) the lithe blonde they share equally and happily. Character, suspense, action, what could go wrong? Well, like so many Oliver Stone films, this one turns out to be vapid after all.
Stone knows how to make a slick action movie, of course, and Savages is never dull. Benicio del Toro is the bloodthirsty enforcer for the cartel, which makes Ben and Chon a takeover proposal they try to refuse. Soon O. is held hostage, Ben’s pacifist instincts are tested and the stakes are raised as a series of maneuvers that lead to explosions, shootouts and – I mean this literally – a couple of endings. (I won’t reveal how the end plays out, except to say it’s an unnecessary stunt.)
Through it all, the characters are worse than stick figures. At times their presence is painfully bad, starting with O’s clumsy voiceover, which begins the film with “Just ‘cause I’m telling you this story doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it.” It quickly gets worse when she introduces us to her two lovers, saying that Chon is trying to “fuck the war out” of himself. “I have orgasms, he has wargasms,” she says, to which you can only respond, “Please shut up, O.” So much better if we can figure this out for ourselves and not hear prose that makes our ears hurt. The screenplay, by Stone, Shane Salerno and Don Winslow, who wrote the novel the film is based on, never overcomes this clunky intrusion.
Kitsch has the most stereotyped role and there’s not much he can do with it. How many returning veterans in action movies are not hot-tempered? Johnson does a great job of channeling the long-haired Berkeley student who turns his science into a well-run business; so what’s a smart guy like that doing at odds with a drug cartel? O, with her hippie-girl dresses and easy, love-two-men sensuality, is a pretty doll, and Lively (probably more than the film intends) lets us see how lame-brained Ophelia is.
John Travolta is fine as a crooked DEA agent who has sheltered Ben and Chon, but Salma Hayek steals every scene as the head of the cartel. It’s Hayek who has the best lines, telling the captive O., “There’s something wrong with your love story, baby. They’ll never love you as much as they love each other or they wouldn’t’ share you.” That rare moment of insight cuts through the plot twists to reveal the romantic naivete of the main characters and their druggy vision of utopian romance. If only there were more of that perception. It’s pretentious, fake profundity when someone on each side of the drug war calls the other side savages.
Instead, we have Hayek’s deliberately fake-looking black wig, a longer version of Uma Thurman’s in Pulp Fiction. Her look becomes a reminder that films loaded with surface violence and action can also have fascinating characters.
And there’s another reminder closer to home. Ben and Chon, with their scientific development of great marijuana, bring to mind Walter White, Breaking Bad’s science teacher turned meth cook, increasingly confronted with violence he didn’t expect. Walter is no one’s idea of a hero, but he’s a rich, ambiguous, complex character. And, sure, a television series has a lot more time and space to develop characters, but even in the first episode Walter was more believable and complex than anyone in Savages. Once, Stone’s fierce commitment to violence seemed to push barriers. In the age of Breaking Bad – an era he helped create – it just seems old.