To defeat a savage, how savage would you become? Would you become the bogeymen to punish those who haunt your dreams? In narcotics thriller Savages, director Oliver Stone presents and then answers those questions in vivid, graphic detail while exploring a facet of love that is far from fairy tale. The setup to Savages adds a spark to this rather familiar material with our protagonists committing to the type of love triangle you’ll never see in a romantic comedy. Having all met years earlier on the shores of Laguna Beach, Cal., what began as a pot-dealing partnership between pacifist botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson), damaged war vet Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and their employee Ophelia "O" (Blake Lively) became a friendship and eventually something more. Sharing their multi-million-dollar ocean-front home, these three love one another and exist more as kindred spirits than players in some sort of lustful, dysfunctional tryst.We believe in this arrangement, so when O is abducted by the cartel after a failed business proposal, we are invested in their cause. The only weak link in this violent parable is the casting of O herself, as Blake Lively comes off more adorable than as some sort of goddess. Jennifer Lawrence was originally cast as O, and while she's no bubbling sexpot herself, she would have been a boundlessly superior choice to the often clunky presence of Lively. The film is also stricken by an insufferable and unnecessary voiceover by our lead vixen that detracts from the narrative and hints from the get-go that Stone has something up his sleeve. But overall, the acting is extremely strong with more characters receiving some depth than you would usually get in a narco-thriller. Taylor Kitsch rinses some of the stink of John Carter and Battleship from his soiled reputation and Aaron Johnson is far from the awkward teen we saw in Kick-Ass. John Travolta makes a limited but memorable appearance as a corrupt DEA agent and his scenes with Chon and Ben are the movie’s bursts of comedic relief. The “good guys” split screen time surprisingly equally with the other side of the conflict featuring the cartel head Elena (Salma Hayek) and her chief enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro). It is without question Del Toro who absconds with the entire affair as the loathsome Lado, who is so sinister and revolting every time he appears on screen you truly fear he is about to slaughter somebody. He is in fact so vile and so disturbingly charismatic that you even dread what he may do to the other antagonists. He is involved in nearly every instance of the film’s grisly violence and his participation in a particularly graphic whipping scene only cements his on-screen reputation. With his dishevelled moustache and hallowed eyes, he makes Lado infinitely memorable and provides what is easily one of the very best performances of his career. This is Stone’s most accomplished work since 2006’s World Trade Center, and while that effort was more a showcase for some surprisingly potent acting by Nicolas Cage and Maria Bello, Savages is very much an exhibition of Stone’s sure-handed action direction and distinct style – love it or hate it. Despite being sold more as an action thriller, the gunplay is sparser than I would have thought and is far more a character study with perforations of violence. This is at times a detriment, especially considering Savages runs about 20 minutes too long. Stone might have considered approaching the material a tad more like a stripped-down revenge tale, even though we see far too many films of that variety each year. Stone is at his most interesting when he brings up issues of morality and the three-way relationship between O, Chon and Ben. The best example of this comes when our captured belle sits down to dinner with our sultry Elena at which she points out that Chon and Ben must love each other more than her or else they would never be able to share. Many elements of Savages could easily become its own film: a deeper exploration of the love triangle, a look at the assent and tragedies of the Elena character and even more so the rise of Lado, whose arc here resolves nothing like you would expect.
Speaking of resolutions, be prepared for a love-it-or-hate-it climax that interestingly plays with conventions of the genre while existing as a cheat to the audience in turn. I found the finale to be more of a moot series of events in relation to the mostly strong (if meandering) film that preceded it, but I do realize if Stone had just gone for the against-type conclusion some viewers would be just as put off, if for slightly different reasons. Judge it for yourself. All those who populate Stone’s world have their savage qualities, be it through a forced hand or due to gleaning some twisted pleasure. Lively’s ethereal O has a different meaning for the word, one far more fitting for her “wrong” love story: being savage merely represents living an existence in the untamed – a reversal back to the feral and unpolished. If this is Stone in a savage state of any kind, then I suggest he remain in it, as for whatever it’s worth, this is his return to form.