Anchored in the gruesomely violent world of Mexican drug cartels – who don’t take kindly to interlopers, competition or the word “no” – the film is based on Don Winslow’s novel of the same, and tells the story of best buds Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson). Chon’s an aggressive, no-nonsense war vet, Ben’s a mild-mannered pseudo-hippie and, together, they’ve cornered the market on super-high-grade (pun intended) marijuana with a 33% THC level. They’re a small, proudly independent operation in Laguna Beach, CA. And a profitable one… which catches the attention of Baja Cartel queenpin Elena (Salma Hayek, in a deliciously evil performance). When she “suggests” they merge their operations and the fellas decline, well, things get ugly.
Soon, the guys’ live-in, mutual, beach-babe love, O (Blake Lively), is kidnapped by Elena’s right-hand man (Benicio Del Toro) and threatened with death (“she will die very, very badly”) if the pair don’t immediately comply and go into business with Elena.
What follows is a gritty but glossy (glissy?) movie that pulls no punches, literally or figuratively, when it comes to onscreen violence. It is, after all, an Oliver Stone film, so that’s to be expected, though there were a few wince-inducing moments that even the heartiest audience member might find hard to watch. Thankfully, even though what drives the action is sort of a damsel-in-distress scenario, the women in the film get to kick almost as much ass as their male counterparts.
Despite some strong performances – in addition to Hayek’s steely villainess and Del Toro’s beleaguered second banana, John Travolta turns up as a nicely shifty DEA agent and Kitsch proves himself an actor capable of untapped-until-now intensity -- Savages does kind of spiral out of control the longer it goes on. Yes, it’s a movie about drugs and the people who sell them, so some degree of frenetic storytelling is to be expected, but the last half hour is so comparatively pointless that it starts to undo all the good stuff that came before it.