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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

Savages | Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro | Review

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  4_Chicks_Small Jacqueline Monahan

Jacqueline  Monahan

Las Vegas Round The Clock
Jacqueline Monahan is an educator for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also an entertainment reporter for
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Savages | Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro | Review

Peace, love, and pot collide with chainsaws, guns, and torture in director Oliver Stone’s Savages, an aptly titled foray into what occurs when the peaceful world of drug entrepreneurship collides with the brutal world of a drug cartel.

Laguna Beach marijuana purveyors Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) share a sumptuous lifestyle and an anachronistically dressed girl named O for Ophelia (Blake Lively) who looks like she dropped into their midst from the year 1969.  The guys are polar opposites; Ben is a Buddhist humanitarian and Chon is a former Navy SEAL who has completed tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their designer pot is coveted and in constant demand and the trio makes mad profits on the illegal weed.  Ben puts much of their money into developing third world villages in Africa, so right away we know that these are the good pot guys.

The bad pot guys are a conglomeration known as the Baja cartel, run by the ruthless Elena (Salma Hayek).  Her number one henchman, Lado (Benicio Del Toro) is a treacherous sleazebag who never speaks loudly but can leave a long, wide trail of death in his wake.

Trance-like narration is provided occasionally by O as events heat up between Ben and Chon and Elena’s executive crew, led by Alex (Demian Bichir).  The cartel wants a share of the profitable business in exchange for wider distribution.  The two men turn them down.

Big mistake.

Even corrupt DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) thinks that’s a dumb move.  In the cartel’s own words, they “blowtorch your balls, rape your wife, kill your kids.”  Why can’t Ben and Chon just give in?  Not only do the two decline the cartel’s offer of a partnership, they get sassy about it, which makes Elena mad.

Big mistake.

Elena, who has lost a husband and two sons to the drug wars, has only one person that she cares about, daughter Magdalena (Sandra Echeverria).  Otherwise, she is perfectly at ease with viewing multiple decapitations while getting a foot rub.

To make the two men more agreeable to the offer, O is snatched and held for a steep ransom, one that forces the pair into behavior that emulates the cartel’s own vicious brand of “negotiation.”

The plot thickens even further with set-ups, betrayals, double-crosses, and daring capers (it helps that Chon has a group of former Navy SEALS on call to help him with things like, stakeouts, sniper fire, etc.)  Blindfolds, skull masks, arterial spurts, carnage, and gunfire dominate the screen between schemes as the whole cannabis carnival collides into action-packed (double) ending.

Benicio Del Toro displays his meanest, sleaziest incarnation as the despicable Lado.  John Travolta, complete with receding hairline and paunch, makes for a believable DEA drone.  Salma Hayek savors the cruelty of her character with a cool detachment that escalates Elena’s menace-potential.  Blake Lively nails the burnout quality of a lifelong pot smoker in word, deed and appearance.

Kitsch and Johnson embody Chon and Ben’s philosophical differences as if waving flags of war and peace above their heads – it’s that easy to tell them apart.

Director Oliver Stone does not glorify the violence here, but decries it along with his more sensitive characters.  The others don’t look away, and the audience doesn’t want to, either, a testament to Stone’s skill at handling grisly scenes with tragic rather than sensationalistic undertones.

Based on the book of the same name by Don Winslow, (who co-wrote the screenplay with Shane Salerno and Stone) Savages is a gripping tale based on extremes, with each side believing that the title applies to the other.

By film’s end, the viewer gets to believe it, too.

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