Hot off the heels of Max Payne 3, Oliver Stone's Savages comes along to take a second stab at the sun and sand noir. Where Max may have left us wishing for a return to dark, rain-soaked alleyways, Savages trades in the crime drama trappings for something genuinely compelling.
O (Blake Lively) is in love with two men, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), and they don't really have a problem with it. This unconventional love triangle has a solid foundation, as the two men are best friends and together, as O puts it, they make one complete man. They also happen to run the most successful marijuana farm in the world.
Ben is a hippy at heart. He follows Buddha, helps children in third-world countries, and tries to keep his drug dealing business as clean as possible. Chon is there when things go wrong. He's a former marine with blood on his hands and the horrors of war in his mind. O is the woman that binds them together, and as weird as a love story as that is, it works.
When one of Mexico's drug cartels decides to move in on their business and make them an offer, their contemporary ideals dissolve in an instant. The cartel brings no hope of maintaining a clean marijuana business, so Ben and Chon decide it's time to get out of the game. The cartel doesn't take their lack of compliance lightly, kidnapping O and sparking revenge in the two men.
What happens from there is a bloody tale of deception as the two collaborate with DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) and try to find a way to hit the cartel where it hurts. On the other side of the fence, Lado (Benicio Del Toro) spends equal time torturing O and murdering people in broad daylight. He's an unpredictable monster and Del Toro brings an amazing performance to the character.
Lado doesn't kill a man in the cover of night, he does it in the cover of a landscaping crew right in the middle of the street or in a wealthy neighborhood. It's just one of the ways the film turns the noir style on its head. Noir narration isn't provided in gritty melodramatics by a man on the edge, but by O, a suntanned princess born into privilege. There's a sense that even a beach full of surfers getting high could have a seedy underbelly to it, and that's what makes Savages' world is so fascinating.
This is a film that takes the typical crime and revenge and tragedy tale and gives it a refreshing kick in the head. Even when it isn't firing on all cylinders it relies on excellent performances from Travolta, Del Toro, and Selma Hayek. It's also probably the closest thing Oliver Stone has done to Natural Born Killers in almost two decades.
That said, Savages has one serious sore spot, and that's the ending. Oliver Stone made the curious decision to more or less include two endings in the film. The first is the more poetic (and I'd argue more appropriate) ending. The second is a Wayne's World-esque rewind that comes completely out of left field. It fills in a gap in the plot but otherwise feels like a thematic cop-out. O's final narration, in which she explains how they are still savages despite everything, feels embarrassing and forced.
If you're one to let the last five minutes of a film undo two hours and five minutes of quality, you may want to dock Savages an extra star. Otherwise, I suggest you make the decision the filmmakers were too afraid to, and choose the ending you think is the best.