Money, drugs, politics -- it's business as usual for Oliver Stone in Savages, a thinly veiled critique of the often-criticized War on Drugs that never forgets its first goal is to entertain as it tells the tale of two enterprising California pot growers drawn into a vicious war with one of Mexico's most dangerous drug cartels.
Ben (Aaron Johnson) is a devout Buddhist and dedicated philanthropist, and his best friend Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is a former mercenary who trained as a Navy SEAL. They may not seem like major drug dealers, but together they make a comfortable living selling top-quality marijuana. And they share more than just a profitable business: Their mutual girlfriend O (Blake Lively) is more than enough woman for the two ambitious young entrepreneurs to handle. But just as Ben and Chon are feeling like they're on top of the world, their blissful life of lawless hedonism threatens to yield dire repercussions. The Mexican Baja cartel wants a piece of the action, and their cruel leader Elena (Salma Hayek) has dispatched her top hatchet man Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to ensure that she gets it. When the cartel kidnaps O and threatens to kill her unless Ben and Chon comply, the desperate pot dealers enlist the aid of a shady DEA agent (John Travolta) in order to avert a tragedy.
Whether you agree or disagree with Stone's politics, it's an artist's duty to challenge the status quo. By exploring how drug policies that favor punishment over compassion actually increase violent criminal activity rather than curb it, and packaging that message in the context of a pulpy, entertaining thriller, Stone fulfills this duty with stylistic flair. And though Savages may not soar to the deliriously expressionistic heights of Stone's most controversial and challenging works, perhaps the restraint shown by the director is a sign of maturity given that the subject matter practically invites artistic overindulgence. While a less experienced filmmaker might have been tempted to try and visualize the effects of Ben and Chon's powerful strain of marijuana, Stone relies on his actors to express them, and in the process keeps us involved in the story rather than sending us on any distracting, THC-fueled flights of fancy.
Sadly, the three actors chosen to convey this also prove to be Savages' greatest flaw; while Kitsch, Johnson, and Lively prove adept at looking convincingly stoned, their range of emotions is notably muted, making them function better as archetypes rather than sympathetic, believable characters. And with a talented supporting cast who outshine the three key players, the balance just feels slightly off. Travolta and Del Toro are the stars of the show here, with the latter in particular looking like he's savoring his role as a diabolical villain who's sure to make viewers' skin crawl. Hayek, meanwhile, infuses her ruthless cartel leader with a flash of humanity that's fascinating if not entirely effective given her character's heinous methods. The screenplay by Stone, Shane Salerno, and Don Winslow (who penned the book Savages is based on) does a commendable job of juggling multiple storylines, though some are likely to feel cheated when the writers make a not-so-subtle attempt to have it both ways in the tense climax.
Ranked among the director's impressive body of work, Savages qualifies as mid-grade Stone, fitting comfortably and naturally into a filmography in which greed, hypocrisy, and violence are common themes. Think of it as Scarface's pot-smoking celluloid cousin -- the one who chooses the mellow buzz of weed to the amped up rush of cocaine, but still gets weird enough that you wouldn't necessarily want to crash at his pad for the weekend, regardless of the spectacular oceanfront view.