Universal Pictures

Director: Oliver Stone

Screenwriter: Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, from Don Winslow’s novel

Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Trevor Donovan, John Travolta, Aaron Johnson, Salma Hayek, Emile Hirsch, Benicio Del Toro

Screened at: AMC Lincoln Square, NYC, 7/2/12

Opens: July 6, 2012

Say what you want about New York’s being the world’s most exciting city, but let’s not be smug. Take a look at the beautifully photographed scenes of Laguna Beach and much of California’s Orange County in “Savages” and you wonder why you ever thought the sedate activity of walking around Manhattan can compare. In Oliver Stone’s movie from the fast-tracked novel of the same name by Don Winslow, we see people living, really living the kind of life that requires big bucks. And if you’ve ever wondered what criminals do with their ill-gotten gains, drool over the spacious homes they own in that affluent stretch of land. For extra emphasis compare that way of life with that of the folks just over the border in Tijuana, Mexico, and you’ll know why half the world would like to live right here in the U.S.A.

On the other hand, contrast the beauty of the scenery, photographed by Dan Mindel with anamorphic lensing, with the scuzzy characters who make the tens of millions needed to afford this life-style. Consider the sickening brutality with which they deal with their enemies (such as squealers) and you’ll be happy that though you live in a cramped one-bedroom apartment, the only bad thing you did in your life was to cheat on your ninth-grade algebra test.

“Savages” is thickly plotted like a classic novel with epic scope, finding the California-Mexico drug sellers living large in the great outdoors, saving the indoor scene for lovemaking and torture, albeit not at the same time. Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson star respectively as Chon and Ben, two young people who are awfully fond of each other to such an extent that they share O (Blake Lively) between them, a ménage-a-trois of Californication that even shows us the two different styles of lovemaking of the two men: one a former Navy Seal who is rough, the other, the peace-loving tender type. She’ll take both, happily. The trio are a match made in heaven, except for the fact that the guys have a history of scoring huge drug deals, now desiring to get out of the business and go into solar panels, but blocked by the Baja cartel in Mexico who want to expand Ben and Chon’s business. To help the two to change their minds, Elena (Salma Hayek), Lado (Benicio Del Toro), and a third member (Demian Bichir), all keeping in touch with Dennis (John Travolta), a double-dealing DEA agent on whom they depend, kidnap O. Do not underestimate the passion of two men when the love of their lives is forced to live in squalor, put regularly to sleep, and attacked by one of the outlaws.

The savages of the title are actually all of them, the entire story given over, it seems, to have us in the audience figure out which group will be the more savage. Scripter Shane Salerno and Don Winslow’s script embodies dark humor though not quite enough of a satirical note about the lives of the rich in Orange County—the people who shop in the exclusive malls and live in beachfront properties to die for—as many of them do. Many scenes are as violent as those in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” while emulating thematic threads in revenge dramas like Paul Kersey’s “Death Wish,” as Ben, as pacific as the ocean whose waves reach out to his home, turns into a murderous man of action.

Salma Hayek is particularly multi-dimensional and riveting as the crime boss who makes the vicious men in her organization cower, and credit Benicio Del Toro as a potential award-winning performer for his role as the most loathsome of the gang. Oliver Stone treats us to cinematic tricks: converting scenes from luscious color to drab black-and-white, mixing some Spanish dialogue in with the English (and the subtitles are bell-clear), exploiting vibrant cinematography with a sometimes classical music soundtrack to augment the tension.

Rated R. 129 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B

Acting – A-

Technical – A-

Overall – B+


By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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