Every once in a while a movie comes along that absolutely blows you away and Oliver Stone‘s Savages from Universal Pictures is just one of those movies. From the opening scene to the last this is a movie that grabs you by the throat and never lets up. It’s smart, sexy, fun and dangerous and the cast and director seem to be in total sync from the first frame. Ostensibly a love story set in the drug culture and underworld of the Southern California illegal marijuana trade, “Savages” is based on the novel by Don Winslow and tells the story of two drug kingpins (and best friends) named Cho (Taylor Kitsch), a hardcore warrior and a product of his military training and service in the Iraq war and Ben (Aaron Johnson) a peace-loving, philanthropic product of the sixties who just happens to be the best pot grower in North America. The two share a house and their affections with O (for Ophelia) played by Blake Lively with whom they are both in love and thus this love triangle becomes the basis for the story.
When a ruthless drug lord named Elena(played by a phenomenal Salma Hayek) wants to become partners with the successful California drug kingpins and is then rebuffed by the pair, all hell breaks loose when she sends her crew lead by a menacing Benecio Del Toro to kidnap O and hold her until the pair agree to become her partners in the drug trade. John Travolta plays Dennis, a thoroughly corrupt federal agent who is working both sides against the middle in an attempt to squeeze as much money (and glory) out of the situation for himself.
This is a total return to form for Stone who has had some missteps in recent years, but seems to have gotten his groove back and then some with a film that finds him comfortable in his wheelhouse of hard R-rated action and drama. Not since his legendary “Scarface” has Stone created such dread and tension as he does in key moments in this film. Hell, there is even a chainsaw scene thrown in for god measure.
All of the actors seem totally on their game with Aaron Johnson (virtually unrecognizable from his titular role in “Kick Ass”) a total standout as the sensitive and passive Ben whom we see virtually transform before our eyes as events force a change in his demeanor and attitude. Taylor Kitsch proves why he is a leading man in the making despite the box office disappoints of both “John Carter” and “Battleship.” His slow burn intensity and sudden bursts of violence coupled with his carefully hidden sensitive side are a thing to behold as he holds the screen in every scene in which he appears. Blake Lively showcases her range in a smaller, yet key role as the pawn in the middle of this cat and mouse game.
In a film loaded with terrific performances, Bencio Del Toro as the hit man with a handlebar mustache is one of the key villains of the movie and gives an unforgettable performance that mixes menace and humor in equal measure. John Travolta appears to also be having a great time under Stone as he chews up the scenery and shines in a unforgettable kitchen scene with Del Toro in the latter part of the movie.
Surprisingly it is Salma Hayek who absolutely captivates as they evil, yet utterly complex drug lord Elena who is at once a homicidal cold-hearted killer and a sensitive and caring mother to her estranged daughter. You cannot take your eyes of her when she is on screen and despite her small stature and incredible beauty strikes fear into her henchmen and the audience. An Oscar nomination would be well-deserved for this career-redefining role that will change how she is perceived from now on.
Ultimately though it is Oliver Stone who must get the lions share of the credit for creating his new masterpiece. A film that pushes the envelope in so many ways, yet never fails to be an entertaining and fun movie to watch. “Savages” is a movie that will exhilarate and entertain, repulse and captivate and is an instant classic in the Oliver Stone cannon of work.
Starts Friday, July 6 nationwide (Rated R) 130 mins.