Film Review: Savages

Based on co-screenwriter Don Winslow's critically acclaimed novel, 'Savages' doubles down and raises the bloody without becoming a brainless, action-packed time-waster. Now that's entertainment.

"Just because I'm telling you this story doesn't mean I'm alive at the end of it," says golden girl O (“Gossip Girl” Blake Lively) as she walks along a pristine beach at the beginning of Savages, her tone somewhere between dreamy and vacuous. It's that kind of story, the kind that falls squarely within Oliver Stone's bloody, testosterone-fueled comfort zone.

O likes pretty things and killer weed, which works out nicely, because both the love of her life, combat-shocked ex-Navy SEAL Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and the other love of her life, gentle neo-hippie Ben (Aaron Johnson), have carefully cultivated the best weed in the world—33% THC, dude—and don't mind indulging and sharing their dope-glazed pixie dream girl. Best friends since high school, they're polar opposites in the best possible way: Botanist and business whiz Ben is the low-carbon footprint yin to Chon's haunted, ruthless-killer yang. Together they're one whole man, as O muses while enjoying one or the other of them…it really doesn't matter which.

They share a beachfront hideaway to die for, Fortune 500 money, and a network of operatives who can do whatever they can't. Financier-turned-hacker Spin (Emile Hirsch) manages their millions, stashed in a global cyber-labyrinth so convoluted that it would take 20 of him 60 days to begin finding them; dirty DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) keeps the heat at bay, and fiercely independent dope growers like Eric (Sean Stone) can, if necessary, come up with 300 pounds of primo dope on a moment's notice.

Life is sweet, a waking dream of success, shared sensual bliss and personalized recreation: O shops, Ben buffs his karma by investing in hands-on Third World improvement projects, and Chon blows stuff up with his Navy SEAL pals—nothing beats knowing you're prepared to protect your little piece of paradise. Cue the Baja Cartel, a vicious drug-producing juggernaut looking to expand by partnering with the cream of the Norteno independents, the creamiest being BenChon. And this is where the fatal steps are taken: Not only do Chon and Ben turn down an offer they can't afford to refuse, proffered with impeccable civility by sleek lawyer Alex (Demián Bichir) on behalf of "La Reina" Elena (Salma Hayek), but each offends La Reina in his own special way. So she takes O, initiating an escalating game of feints and bluffs and moves that engulf everyone in a bloody wave of betrayal, score-settling, personal enrichment and spiritual degradation—not just the players, but their families, friends, neighbors, casual acquaintances, low-level employees and even innocent bystanders, assuming there are actual innocents in this stinking cesspool of a world.

There are echoes of Platoon, Salvador, Natural Born Killers, Wall Street and even JFK in Savages, but it never feels like a rehash of the 66-year-old Stone's greatest hits. Savages moves like a freight train—a freight train driven by Casey Jones and pursued by hellhounds—and while it deviates from Winslow's novel in significant ways, it remains true to the book's hallucinatory mix of stoner navel-gazing and casual brutality. Even O's voiceover, annoying though it sometimes is, has its place, delivering a taste of slacker-savant wordplay that helped put the novel on a slew of 2010 top-ten lists. Savages is a summer movie the way Bonnie and Clyde was a summer movie: It's a bracing, supremely self-aware trip a rebours that counters every adrenaline rush with an ugly reminder that cheap thrills can be very pricy.