Did director Oliver Stone set out to make a cinematic polemic on this country's failing War on Drugs? It seems like he might have, based on some of the conversations between two California drug dealers Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and the DEA agent, Dennis (John Travolta), whom the pay for protection and whom, at the outset of Savages, warns them of the looming threat from Mexican cartels pushing north into California as the state relies less and less on contraband from south of the border. Either way, I suppose the point is that Stone never really finishes that polemic.
Now that the tide has turned in the battle over gay marriage, the Drug War is the next great civil injustice which American society as a whole must tackle. Stone -- JFK-conspiracy-promoting, history-rewriting loon that he is -- is still probably one of the best equipped voices in Hollywood to tackle it through film. Few movie characters loom larger than Gordon Gekko still does today, after all.
So why, then, did he settle for a slick but mostly kiddie-pool shallow action film that strafes past the obvious grander issue almost completely? I wish I had an answer. And I wish that I could at least tell you that the action stuff was more compelling and high-minded than what that genre usually has to offer. Sadly, there's nothing I can say on either account.
Back to Ben and Chon, I suppose. There's no subtlety to their relationship. The former is the brains -- a University of California graduate who double-majored in botany and business -- while the latter is the brawn -- an Afghanistan veteran who provides muscle on the rare occasions that they need it. They live the good life in Orange County. It's a quite unusual life, too. They share a girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), and are surrounded by an abnormally loyal entourage; Chon's Army buddies chip in with surplus muscle when needed, while business and tech whiz Spin (Emile Hirsch) helps them launder their money from behind a bank of computer monitors.
Their hydroponic Garden of Eden is disrupted in dramatic fashion when they bristle at the idea of a Mexican cartel led by Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek) horning in on their network and profits. Mexican cartels, as you know if you watch CNN, are anything but subtle, and true to form Elena has her top henchmen Lado (Benicio Del Toro) kidnap O to get the boys in line. This sets off a mostly grisly chain of events as Ben and Chon fight both for their turf and for the return of O.
It's a plot that would be more tolerable if it had any imagination or innovation at all, and it's one that would be more tolerable if it didn't feel like an enormous distraction from the question that the film seemingly purposely sets out to beg, but then never even bothers to try and answer at all. The bizarre arrangement between Ben, Chon and O isn't believable at all, nor are their decisions to first ignore Elena's business overtures and then to take on her entire cartel. Del Toro, an actor with great range, feels wasted in his attack dog role. He is menacing, yes, but also cliche and lacking in complexity.
When it all comes together, what you're left with is a bad mashup of Traffic and Blow. Stone would have been better off trying to do one or the other rather than sitting on the fence between the two and rendering his movie completely rudderless.