Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Think of it as a stoner’s version of John Ford’s “The Searchers.” Instead of John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter as a couple of West Texas settlers searching for Natalie Wood who has been kidnapped by Comanche Indians, we have Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson as benign marijuana growers searching for Blake Lively who has been kidnapped by a Baja drug cartel.
In this modern retelling by Oliver Stone (yes, the director who gave you “JFK,” “Natural Born Killers,” and “Platoon”), the two pot growers share their girlfriend as easily as they might share a joint. Instead of Scar, the chief of the Nawyecka Comanche’s, we have Benicio del Toro as Lado, chief henchman for Mexican bad girl Salma Hayek. And rather than Captain Clayton leading the attack on the Indian encampment, we have John Travolta as a corrupt DEA agent urging the violence on.
On the surface, this movie is about drug wars. “It’s a reality that things are quite violent down there right now,” Stone says, “because there’s so much money to be made. It’s bigger than tourism, bigger than oil. Drugs are a huge part of the economy of Mexico right now.” He adds, “This is not a war on drugs. This is a war for money.”
As one of the growers explains the conflict, it’s like “a boutique operation getting absorbed by Wal-Mart.”
“Savages” is based on a same-named bestselling crime novel by Don Winslow. It was picked by The New York Times as one of the Top 10 Books of 2010.
What made Stone choose it? “Above all it was a ride, unpredictable, you did not know what would happen next.” Sexy, dangerous, lots of explosions. He describes the movie as “Southern California meets Mexico noir.”
As for “The Searchers,” Oliver Stone avoids the comparison. He says, “I wanted to shoot it in a sort of glamorous ‘Duel in the Sun’ way. A bit of Peckinpah’s ‘Wild Bunch.’ And Sergio Leone, of course.” A western feel in a modern-day setting. What’s more, he describes his two leads as “kind of a Newman-Redford, Butch and Sundance thing.”
Stone tips his hand a bit about the controversial ending. “The bigger issue is what’s two men and a woman like, can it work?”
As Salma Hayek’s straight-laced cartel boss tells the kidnapped girl, “They must love each other more than you, otherwise how could they share you.”
Whatever the answer, brutal violence is unleashed as the boys do whatever it takes to get their girlfriend back. The movie is a rat’s nest of twists and turns.
Here, Oliver Stone returns to his darker themes. “Savages” is releasing its fury on audiences at the Tropic Cinema.
While the “good” guys might win the battles, it’s the baddies who chew up the scenery. Benicio del Toro is at his sadistic best. John Travolta goes over the top. And Salma Hayek enjoys one of the juiciest roles of her career.
However, the three young leads serve more as eye candy than seasoned actors. But when the bullets star flying you don’t care.
“I like to photograph good-looking people,” admits Stone. “I always did. But Aaron and Blake and Taylor also kept me young just by being themselves.”
Let’s hope “Savages” fares as well as “The Searchers.” John Ford’s film was picked by the American Film Institute as the Greatest Western of all time. And it ranks 12th on AFI’s list of the Top 100 Greatest Movies.
Who are the savages? “Aren’t we all to some degree?” posits Oliver Stone. “The question is of degree. To what degree do you cross the boundaries of what’s right and what’s wrong?”