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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Savages

Oliver Stone's hardboiled story of guns, money and dope

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Marijuana is big business and with the rise of the Mexican cartels, there is less room for smaller operators, even within the U.S. borders. Running through Savages, the Oliver Stone film based on Don Winslow's bestselling novel, are parallels between the ruthless ways of transnational corporations and border-crossing cartels. Both are vulture capitalists—it's just that vultures really do circle in the wake of the cartels, for whom downsizing means chopping off heads.

Savages
stars a trio of young actors, Aaron Johnson as Ben, Taylor Kitsch as Chon and Blake Lively as O, the girl they both adore (and share). The boys live in a cliffside dwelling overlooking the Pacific with the rich, irresponsible O, whose life is a romantic, trust-funded adventure with few consequences until the Mexicans arrive. Ben and Chon are high-school buddies who, in spite (or because) of their contrasting personalities, live together and run their own business growing and distributing primo cannabis. Ben is the hippy with degrees in business and botany from Berkeley and Chon is the soldier who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ben is a Buddhist who funds African relief while Chon isn't above smashing the skull of two-bit pushers who refuse to pay up. But if karma compounds over time, they are about to be paid back with interest as a cartel pushes its way into their idyllic Laguna Beach lives.

The ugly face of the Mexican druglords shows up in the form of Lado (Benicio del Toro), a coarse, macho killer rankled at working for a queenpin, Elena (Salma Hayek), who presides from her Baja California hacienda over an operation held together not by fear as much as sheer terror. Death comes painfully for anyone who stands in her way. Ben and Chon's reactions to the proverbial offer they can't refuse—to become a subsidiary of the cartel for a percentage of profits (and access to global markets)—couldn't be more different. Ben wants to fold and get out but, in Chon's ethos, that amounts to cut and run. For him, this means war. When mellow, TED-talking Ben suggests that they "embrace the change," Chon replies: "Grow up, Ben. You don't change the world. The world changes you."

The screenplay (co-written by Stone, Winslow and others) is hardboiled and smart, avoiding the obvious clichés adopted by lesser hands working in contemporary film noir. Stone sets the story with eye-popping visuals, including a new design for the digital countdown familiar from countless thrillers, the use of Skype to advance the plot and editing that's swift but steady going. The film never races or drags. Even the music is cleverly woven into the story. Yes, that's the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" performed as a Latin ballad.

All the characters have dimension and cast a shadow, including John Travolta's cynically corrupt DEA agent. Beneath the capitalist struggle for market dominance, where supply barely keeps up with demand, are culture clashes between Ben and Chon and—more so—the Americans and Mexicans. Both sides see the other as nothing more than savages.
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