The summer blockbuster season can be huge and spectacular and exhausting. I love a good superhero movie as much as the next guy, but after two months of capes and gothic fairy tales and vampire-killing presidents, a change of pace feels good, something to cleanse away the sticky genre. There are no cowls or techno-gadgets in Savages, there are no expensive CGI effects, no lip-biting Snow Whites or musclebound hammer wielders. Oliver Stone returns to the basics: Sex, drugs, and violence, the fundamentals of storytelling.
You know what Savages has that most of the rest of the summer fare does not? A fucking script, people. Words on a page. People speaking to each other, fucking each other, smoking a bowl together, and shooting each other in the goddamn face. There are no cartoon villains played by slight but charming British men with menacing smiles. Those aren’t villains. Benicio Del Toro with an out-of-control moustache and a mullet is a motherfucking villain. Real villains aren’t masterminds trying to achieve world domination: They’re assholes who burn snitches in tires. The step-mother was wicked, Loki was fun, and The Lizard was, well, cheesy, but Benicio Del Toro? Here’s a guy that will shoot you in the neck and make you watch him fuck your girlfriend while you bleed out. He’s not a guy you love to hate; he’s a guy that makes you uncomfortable to watch.
Based on Don Winslow’s novel, Savages is about two men: A dreadlocked botanist-turned-weed grower, Ben (Aaron Johnson, unrecognizable from his Kick-Ass character), and his best friend, Chon (Taylor Kitch), a former Navy SEAL turned muscle for their pot-growing operation. Unfortunately, for Ben and Chon, their little weed company became successful enough to attract the attention of a Mexican drug cartel, who want to partner with them whether they like it or not. They don’t like it, and when they attempt to reject the cartel’s offer, the cartel kidnaps their girlfriend, O (Blake Lively). And yes: She’s a shared girlfriend, because that’s the kind of movie this is. Deal. So naturally when Ben and Chon attempt to retrieve O, all hell breaks loose. They get on the bad side of Elena (Salma Hayek), who is running the cartel, and her henchmen, Alex (Demián Bichir) and Lado (Del Toro). A DEA Agent (John Travolta at his wicked best) also gets involved, and there’s a lot of back-stabbing, a a few broken arrangements, and an ass-load of blood.
Savages is very much in the vein of True Romance, and it’s easily Oliver Stone’s best film since Natural Born Killers. He’s not preoccupied with controversial subject material. He’s not trying to be overly provocative. He’s simply telling a story. The performances range from serviceable (Blake Lively) to great (Benicio Del Toro) and everything in between (Aaron Johnson), but there’s nothing about any of those performances — save for Lively’s narration — that distracts you from the story that’s being told. Even Kitsch — who isn’t being asked to carry a terrible action movie, for once — reminds us of the Timmy Riggins we once loved, if Timmy Riggins sold drugs and killed people who got in his way. Yes, there are two endings — the Oliver Stone ending, and the Hollywood ending (although, both may have been in the Winslow’s novel) — but these are the compromises one accepts to see a movie instead of a multiplex Disneyland ride.
Savages isn’t a perfect film; far from it. But it’s nice to see someone stand up and say, “Let’s make a goddamn movie about adults. For adults.” Not for the prized 18-24 demo, and not for grown-ass men trying to recapture their childhood. Let’s make a movie with a hard R, stick a stake through the R’s neck and fuck him to death. Get a goddamn babysitter and leave the kids at home, Grandaddy Olly wants to show you a movie. There are no white knights, no justice-seekers, and no last-second heroes. But there is Blake Lively’s sideboob, Taylor Kitsch’s ass, and a lot of people missing their heads. Literally. It feels pure and empowering, like I’m being talked to like a goddamn grown-up instead of a man-child who wants to see his toys explode on the screen, and while there’s nothing wrong with exploding toys, it’s nice to be reminded that not every movie is being made to sell a Happy Meal.