Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) share an idyllic lifestyle on California's Laguna Beach - together with their shared love, O (Blake Lively). Ben, a peaceful, charitable botanist aspires to save the world. His closest friend, Chon, a former Navy SEAL and ex-mercenary, isn't sure the world is worth saving. Their lifestyle is made possible by Ben and Chon's lucrative business: raising some of the best marijuana ever developed. Their legendary weed and innovative business model have attracted the keen interest of the Mexican Baja Cartel, headed by the merciless Elena 'La Reina' (Salma Hayek), her brutal enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), and her unscrupulous head attorney, Alex (Demian Bichir). Elena demands a partnership with Ben and Chon, and nobody refuses La Reina without sacrificing something they hold dear.
Review by Louise Keller:
Spraying flair as well as blood, Oliver Stone's über-colourful and graphically violent thriller depicting drug cartels, double dealings, foul play and sex is a wild, full throttle experience. Mixing moods like a gourmand playing with flavours, Stone (with the help of his screenwriter collaborators Shane Salerno and novelist Don Winslow, (from whose sizzling best seller the film is adapted), with great appetite blends the story of the free-spirit, her two pot-growing lovers and the brutal Mexican drug cartel with whom they dare to mess. Stretched to their limits, the characters may all be bold and flawed, but they fit beautifully in the reality Stone has created, engaging, horrifying, disgusting and fascinating us.
Even before the opening credits, the short video sequence in which unimaginably gruesome deeds are committed off screen, we are left in no doubt as to what has happened or what we might expect. The contrast of the next scene shot in monotone - with a beautiful girl on the playground of California's Laguna Beach, long hair flying in the breeze, could not be greater. Blake Lively as O (short for Ophelia), in a role that might have been written for her, tells us in tantalising voice over, reminiscent of Glenn Close in Reversal of Fortune, that just because she is telling the story does not necessarily mean she is still alive. A bit like tempting foreplay, inviting to partake in the ride, she explains that things have spiralled out of control.
Perfectly paced, we are introduced to all the key characters, beginning with O's ménage a trois, Chon (Taylor Kitsch), the former Navy SEAL killing machine and Ben (Aaron Johnson), the gentle spirit and botanist, who are making a financial killing with their high quality crop of marijuana. Both give great performances. Together, O explains, they create the perfect man and she is the home neither ever had. Hot sex is followed and a romantic moonlit dinner for three after which time the gentle and passionate moments are left behind.
Then we meet Benicio Del Toro's scene stealing Lado, the ruthless killer (with part eyebrow missing), whose guise as a gardener often plays out as black comedy. His insatiable appetite for blood is portrayed by shocking, point blank range killings. There's a taunting psychological edge in his dealings with O, when she is kidnapped and held prisoner. Del Toro's is the film's stand out performance - unforgettable and terrifying for a myriad of reasons, depicting not only unflinching brutality but adding subtlety of expression in his body language and even humour. There are many priceless moments like the heated exchange between Lado and John Travolta's crooked cop Dennis, whose ill-fitting suit, big teeth and sleazy manner are part of a wonderfully obnoxious characterisation.
As Elena, head of the Mexican drug cartel, Selma Hayek, is terrific - it's a good role for her. Wearing a long Cleopatra wig, glamour make up and low-cut wardrobe accentuating her voluptuousness, there is nothing girlie about the way in which she pursues Chon and Ben to get a share of their lucrative drug business. This is the springboard for all the action. As tough as nails, yet emotionally defenceless when it comes to her Achilles heel - her daughter Magda (Sandra Echeverría); the development of her relationship with O as a would-be daughter is a nice juxtaposition.
There's brutal action, blood and mayhem as everyone behaves like savages, with loyalties swinging like a pendulum, relationships put through the ringer, high level power struggles and a compelling, sobering and magnified insight into the head space and mind set of the participants.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Bloody violent, bloody savage and bloody wonderful, Oliver Stone's Savages shows how well a talented filmmaker can transform a novel into a movie. And Benicio Del Toro shows how well an actor can transform himself into a fictional character that will haunt our memories for a long time. It's a powerful story which, reduced to its essentials, is almost banal these days: drug dealers fighting amongst themselves over business.
But the pleasure of the screenplay is that it doesn't reduce the novel to its bare essentials; it creates three dimensional characters in a tangible world, all complex and dangerous, but not without sentiment.
De Toro's transformation is as satisfying and complete as Lado, his face distended, his speech impeded, his eyes hooded and his heart hardened. But it's no caricature of the sneering baddie; he injects nuances that make Lado riveting and compelling, commanding every scene he is in.
Blake Lively is a sensuous innocent, though far from naïve as O, who narrates the story for us teasingly in wispy tones. Lively is lovely but so much that she seems out of place in such a gritty environment. Besides, her two lovers are presented as laid back lads - at least in the beginning. Taylor Kitch as Chon is an ex SEAL with tours of duty behind him, and he's a tough son of a gun. Aaron Johnson is a great contrast as Ben, Chon's best mate, a softer guy, reluctant to use violence much less kill anyone.
There is a Butch Cassidy & Sundance Kid quality to the three way relationship, its deep emotional gravity holding the drama in its orbit and giving it reason. The story explores how these three lovers respond to being torn apart - and the strength of their bond. The stakes are high, the risk enormous - yet the fuel is genuine love. Stone has to convince us of this or the movie would collapse - and he does.
Salma Hayek is an interesting choice as the beautiful black widow who has inherited a cartel, and she is feisty in the role, if not entirely convincing; not quite enough black venom, perhaps. John Travolta, on the other hand, is entirely convincing as the corrupt Drug Enforcement Administration agent Dennis, a bulky, deceitful character superbly realised. Stone is meticulous with his attention to casting detail, and small but crucial supports Joaquin Cosio as competing drug heavy Al Azul, and Diego Catano as Chad, the soft centred young gang help, are outstanding.
Storytelling is flawless and Stone's trademark and unflinching approach to action is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.
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SAVAGES (2012) (MA15+)
CAST: Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Benicio Del Toro, Diego Catano, John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Shea Whigham, Karishma Ahluwalia, Demian Bichir
PRODUCER: Moritz Borman, Eric Kopeloff
DIRECTOR: Oliver Stone
SCRIPT: Oliver Stone, Shane Salerno, Don Winslow (novel by Winslow)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Dan Mindel
EDITOR: Joe Hutshing, Stuart levy, Alex Marquez
MUSIC: Adam Peters
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Tomas Voth
RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 18, 2012
RIVERSIDE SNEAK PEEK PREMIERES
A program of premiere screenings of new movies prior to their commercial release
on 4 consecutive Tuesdays - March 10, 17, 24, 31, 2015 - at Riverside Theatre,
Curated & presented by Andrew L. Urban, discussion to
follow with special guests. Briefing notes provided.