Don Winslow's 2010 novel Savages was a bold, audacious story showcasing the author's skill at creating fringe characters who seem perfectly normal, extreme action -- both over the top and yet restrained-- and tight as a drum dialogue.
And Savages could not have been more timely as it vividly showed the connection between the Southern California drug culture and the Mexican cartels, which continues to be in the news.
Winslow's 13th novel, which put him on myriad best of the year lists, was written in an unconventional style with one-word chapters and sentences running vertically down the page; the opening chapter was just two words, one of which was "you."
Savages' storyline seemed tailor-made for the movies. And while the transition to the big screen is not completely smooth, the movie version of Savages retains the spirit of the novel.
Savages benefits greatly from Oliver Stone's gonzo, unrestrained direction; and, at the same time, it suffers from Oliver Stone's gonzo, unrestrained direction.
Stone keeps the multi-layered characters and their unconventional lifestyle as well as the unabashed sexuality, gallows humor and violence of Winslow's novel.
But Stone doesn't know when to stop. In Stone's version, Savages' violence is more graphic than necessary.
Violent scenes are cringe worthy and, while intellectually we know this is fake, I closed my eyes several times. Savages is more Natural Born Killers than U-Turn.
Getting beyond the unnecessary violence, Savages emerges as a sophisticated thriller, nearly as bold and audacious as the novel, helped, no doubt, by the fact that Winslow co-wrote the script with Shane Salerno and Stone.
Savages is the story of long-time friends and now business partners Chon (Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights, John Carter) and Ben (British actor Aaron Johnson of Albert Nobbes). Their rock-solid friendship dates back to high school and their belief in each other has helped them build a lucrative marijuana business.
Chon, an ex-Navy Seal with a violent streak, brought back from Afghanistan the strongest marijuana seeds he could find. Ben, who majored in business and botany at UC-Berkeley, took those seeds and made them even better.
Chon and Ben live with O, short for Ophelia, (Blake Lively of Gossip Girl, The Town), who loves them both, it appears, equally and with abandon.
Chon is "cold metal," as O narrates, while Ben is "warm wood."
It's a happy little ménage à trois with lots of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Business is booming. Millions are rolling in. The payroll includes computer experts, bankers, growers, distributers, and at least one shady federal agent.
The threesome live in a beach-front mansion. O spends many a day at the mall's most luxurious stores. Ben channels much of his money into philantrophy, helping villages in Third World countries.
But now the financially strapped Mexican Baja Cartel, headed by Elena (Salma Hayek), demands a merger. Ben wants to retire; Chon doesn't believe the cartel will let them get out of the business. Threats don't work so the cartel kidnaps O to force the business deal.
Now these two successful independent entrepreneurs use their network of experts in an elaborate scheme to rescue O.
Savages is strongest when the focus is on the characters. Kitsch and Johnson deliver strong performances and while the origin of their friendship is never explored, it is easy to believe that nothing can break their bond. Leaving the snobbery of Gossip Girl in Manhattan, Lively again shows an affinity for portraying off the wall characters as she did in The Town.
Hayek clearly has a wonderful time playing a villianness, steaming in her viciousness. Her Elena balances her ruthlessness with her maternal concern over her wayward college daughter. She and O briefly forge a weird mother-daughter, kidnapper-victim relationship.
Benicio Del Toro, left, as Elena's bloodthirsty henchman Lado and John Travolta as the corrupt DEA agent Dennis Cain nearly steal Savages. Resembling the Day of the Dead masks he often wears, Del Toro is a grinning embodiment of evil and decay. It's a role Del Toro has played time and again, but he does it so well. Travolta resembles a lizard as his corrupt character looks for every angle and payoff, even when threatened with violence.
An encounter between Del Toro and Travolta is a gem. Emile Hirsch delivers an amusing performance as Spin, a former banker who's an expert at numbers and moving accounts for Chon and Ben.
Oh, but the violence.
Savages is not a quiet thriller and the novel has a high body count. But Stone takes that portion of the story and drives it over a cliff. The violence is too graphic and actually weakens the dramatic impact of the story.
Dialing it down a few thousand notches would have made for a stronger movie, after all that worked quite well for Hitchcock.
While Savages is a worthy companion to Winslow's novel, the novel is stronger. Readers will be pleased to learn that Winslow has just released The Kings of Cool, his prequel to Savages. It looks at the backgrounds of Ben, Chon and O and has been receiving rapturous reviews.
Savages: Rating: R (for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout) Cast: Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro, John Travolta, Demian Bichir. Director: Oliver Stone
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Photos: Top, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson; Johnson, Travolta and Kitsch; Salma Hayek and Lively; Johnson, Emile Hirsch and Kitsch; bottom, Benicio Del Toro. Photos courtsey Universal Pictures