The mere idea of having one of the great helmers of our generation in three time Oscar winning Oliver Stone directing three of the most preeminent Hispanic actors of our time, Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek and Demián Bichir, is enough to rattle off Best Picture nomination at the 2013 Academy Awards off our tongues… or is it?
“Savages,” a film based on Don Winslow’s best-selling crime novel that was named one of The New York Times’ Top 10 Books of 2010, is an intriguing look at the dark and savage side of the Mexican/US trade of marijuana. It is a crime thriller adorned with an engrossing story, solid acting and twist and turns leading to an interesting ending, to say the least.
Laguna Beach entrepreneurs Ben (Aaron Johnson), a peaceful and charitable marijuana producer, and his closest friend Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a former Navy SEAL and ex-mercenary, run a lucrative, homegrown industry—raising some of the best weed ever developed. They also share a one-of-a-kind love with the extraordinary beauty Ophelia (Blake Lively). Life is idyllic in their Southern California town…until the Mexican Baja Cartel decides to move in and demands that the trio partners with them. When the merciless head of the BC, Elena (Salma Hayek), her brutal enforcer, Lado (Benicio Del Toro) and her attorney (Demián Bichir) underestimate the unbreakable bond among these three friends, Ben and Chon – with the reluctant, slippery assistance of a dirty DEA agent (Travolta) – wage a seemingly unwinnable war against the cartel. And so begins a series of increasingly vicious ploys and maneuvers in a high stakes, vicious battle of wills.
On paper, this movie should be one of the best films of 2012, but in execution, some stumbles prove costly for Stone due to weak casting decisions on the three main leads: Johnson, Kitsch, and specially, Lively. When a director has accomplished, seasoned actors performing alongside novices, the result is less than promising.
Our three Latino thespians, all Oscar nominated might I add, except for Del Toro who won for “Traffic” in 2000, provide quality performances. The best of the three though is scene- stealer Benicio del Toro, who plays sociopath Lado, and who scares you with his looks, savagery, disdain for order and unpredictability. Hayek extends her acting range to play a ruthless cartel boss, but I believe Mexican actress Kate del Castillo could have been a better fit for the role. She played one in the Telemundo telenovela “La Reina del Sur,” to much acclaim and success, but outside of the small Spanish language market bubble, how in demand is her name compared to Hayek’s? Bichir, on the other hand, coming off his Oscar nomination for “A Better Life”, once again delivers a tight and sound performance as a cunning attorney always playing wisely the hand he’s dealt.
Compared to his last three cinematic efforts, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”, the South American documentary “South of the Border” and “W.,” the life of George W. Bush, this is his best one, but not near his top 3 films. It does, though, provide the entertaining Stone trademark of gory violence, power struggles, and betrayals. All in all, this drug thriller never hits its stride towards heaps of praises, but it doesn’t shy away from engaging us in a compelling story.
JACK RICO, NBC LATINO contributor and founder of showbizcafe.com.