Why Oliver Stone's 'Savages' Stands Tall Among Classic Cartel Flicks

Salma Hayek plays a cartel leader in Oliver Stones "Savages."

For those of you who had visions of Tony Montana brandishing a machine gun over a pile of cocaine, Oliver Stone’s Savages is not exactly a classic gangster flick. Snarkily delivered moral lessons about the Drug War aside, it’s mostly a murky mess of barely distinguishable genres, propelled by a screenplay that manages to be both sublime and ridiculous. But if you read between the lines, in its own stilted way, Savages opens up a dialog between Anglo-American and Latino cultures that we rarely seen in mainstream Hollywood cinema.

Set in Southern California, whose relative proximity to Sinaloa province to the south makes it a fertile site for Anglo-Latino crossover, the film steers clear of both the Stone-scripted Scarface’s manic Marielito masquerade and the director’s conspiracy theory muckraking in JFK and Wall Street. Instead, Savages is a scandalous fable about what happens when the lost idealism of the 1960s--rekindled by the millennial generation—comes into violent conflict with big box-style capitalism run by feudal Mexican cartels with conservative family values.

Ben and Chon (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch) are two high school buddies who pool their talents together to run a multimillion dollar marijuana business from idyllic Laguna Beach. O (Blake Lively) is their live-in girlfriend with whom they have graphic sex one-on-one, and some PG-rated spooning when all three are present. Ostensibly O likes the arrangement because Ben is a sensitive visionary and Chon is a violent ex Navy Seal sex machine, fulfilling her complex physical and emotional needs.

When the film opens, they are confronted by a heavy-handed demand by the Mexican Baja Cartel that they become part of the “family.” This sets up a battle between “good” and “evil,” where Ben and Chon represent New Age rugged individualism and the cartels act as if they were cable providers who came to your house and cut off your head if you didn’t pay the bill.

But by casting superior actors like Benicio del Toro and Salma Hayek to clash with the bland Johnson and Kitsch, Savages forces most viewers to consider the friendly neighborhood narcos as somewhat complex Latinos and not mere stereotypes. Their earthy pragmatism exposes the smug sense of entitlement and ineffectual philanthropy of elite entrepreneurs who would rather save children in Africa than the ones in South Central. When del Toro’s Lado storms into the house of a smarmy DEA agent played by John Travolta, with a “landscaping” crew wielding chainsaws, it’s almost as if he’s saying “you might think we’re just gardeners, but we are some bad-assed businessmen, yo.”

In a concession to lipstick feminism, or more likely the Don Winslow pulp fiction novel the screenplay is adapted from, the story is narrated by O (for Ophelia, a half-baked nod to Shakespeare), who as played by Blake Lively is not much of a revelation. Despite her seemingly exotic choice of being in love with and cohabiting with two men, Lively comes off as nothing more than a sorority queen in made-from-hemp halter tops, her eroticism consisting of the blank, stoned stare of a vegan foodie at Sunday brunch.

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