Oliver Stone spins compelling drama in ‘Savages’

Drama - 2015Savages, directed by Oliver Stone, is a cautionary tale about two marijuana dealers (played by Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and how they get caught up in a deadly affair with a Mexican drug cartel headed by Salma Hayek’s character of Elena. Benicio del Toro, Demian Bichir and John Travolta play supporting roles as crooked schemers on either side of the drug business. Blake Lively is the girlfriend of both Chon (Kitsch) and Ben (Taylor-Johnson), which makes her kidnapping by Elena’s men a joint problem for the dealers.

The dialogue, thanks to a script by Stone, Shane Salerno and Don Winslow (based on Winslow’s book), is sharp and smart. The early scenes of California excess weave nicely into the cutthroat scenes of drug dealing and ultimatums. The plot never becomes too complicated or needlessly violent. Most of the action is centered on Chon and Ben’s predicament.

These two main characters are interesting creations. On a surface level, they seem like polar opposites. Ben is laid back while Chon is much more serious. One enjoys joking while the other is a brooder. In some ways, they are only brought together by their shared business interests. They are two friends whose small-time marijuana business goes too far in the wrong direction. They are happy to give it up as long as they can retrieve O (Lively) from Elena’s clutches.

It’s rare to have a smart drama come from Hollywood anymore. This is not an Oscar-bait movie or action-packed summer blockbuster. It’s a quality story told by a quality director, and thankfully he has amassed a respectable group of actors.

Kitsch and Taylor-Johnson are effective in their respective roles. It might be too much of a stretch to label them as method actors, but they have a sense of seriousness and reality in their acting chops. They will remind audiences of Tom Hardy, and both actors should see equal success (Kitsch went on to Lone Survivor; Taylor-Johnson went on to Godzilla).

Lively’s part of O is slightly underwritten. The audience is able to see her in the beginning of the film, but the role is quite limited after the kidnapping. Hayek eats up her character of Elena and has a lot of fun. That said, she never plays the role over the top or as a joke. Travolta, Bichir and del Toro turn in solid performances, although the spotlight is not on their characters.

Stone is one to always surprise fans. When one might expect another political thriller or war movie, he turns in a solid drama that is quite un-Stone-like. Savages is a wild ride into the dark world of drug dealing. It’s largely humorless but still an invigorating watch.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Savages
  • 2012
  • Directed by Oliver Stone
  • Written by Stone, Shane Salerno and Don Winslow; based on Winslow’s book
  • Starring Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro, Demian Bichir, John Travolta and Blake Lively
  • Running time: 130 minutes
  • Rated R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout
  • Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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