When Business Becomes Crime
Drug War Savages
by SAUL LANDAU
Savage: not domesticated or cultivated; wild.
In June and July the war on drugs proceeded apace as DEA agents and Honduran military goons knocked off some Miskitu people in Honduras – suspects supposedly running drugs in small boats. Police around the United States made thousands of drug-related arrests and doctors prescribed drugs for hundreds of thousands of sad and unmotivated adults and children. But in Mexico the story of dead people, cops or civilians, abounds in the never-ending drug war. Daily, we read of atrocities committed by rival Mexican narco gangs in collusion with the army or police. The drug war makes little sense in a nation where a sad person who sees a doctor gets drugged (legally) and a sad person who smokes a joint runs the risk of arrest.
Oliver Stone’s “Savages” shows how a trivial love-business story leads to border narco violence as he launches his non-tendentious cinematic attack on the drug war. Set in southern California beach country, with mansions growing out of the cliffs, sun-drenched Frisbee tossing surfers and bikini-clad beach gals as the extras, “Savages” examines the marijuana business and the ruthlessness of the criminal corporations (Mexican cartels) to extend their markets into the turf of small indie dealers like Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), best friends who share everything. Chon, an Iraq Navy Seal vet whose mind remains at war and the green-oriented, philanthropic Ben with a botany degree from UC Berkeley are partners in a marijuana production and distribution business.
Ben grows super weed, treats his workers and customers fairly and Chon handles any physical disagreements that emerge. They also love the same poor little rich girl, Ophelia (Blake Lively) whose parents have neglected her emotional needs, but bought her everything. O, in deep need of parental love, adores the two father-figure-lovers. With her Iraq-vet lover she has “orgasms while he has “wargasms.” He is metal. With Ben, who is wood, she makes love. Interesting how a young beauty with absent parents chooses two hippy business studs and they cement their friendship by sharing her. Their perfect combination –for her — and the ideal Hollywood ménage a trois in liturgical Laguna Beach gets interrupted, however, by a Mexican drug cartel message –a beheading video — that wants to buy into their fabulous smoke business. Enter violence and mayhem into the plot because, their paid DEA agent informs them, one doesn’t say no to criminal cartels. Some absence of realism appears in this part of the plot taken from the Don Winslow novel “Savages”.
In this film, Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” combine with “Wall Street” to offer a cinematic essay on what happens when business becomes crime thanks to the war on drugs. Our heroes, who deal hi grade blunt to needy Laguna Beach users, must concede or resist as the Cartel’s queen pin,(Elena) Salma Hayek drives them to decision by kidnapping O. “They can’t love her as much as they love each other,” she concludes of Chon’s and Ben’s relationship. Salma dines with her captive and sows motherly feelings. O also understands what it might have been like to have had a mother who cared about her. But all niceties vanish in the presence of banal villainy, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), who as the cartel’s enforcer, becomes a believably wicked and murderous sadist, who after getting his face full of O’s contemptuous spittle, swallows some lustfully and wipes the rest off his face with her hair.
Stone does not turn “Savages” into a pedantic anti-drug war message film. The viewer, however, will get the point, thanks to the role of Dennis (a chubby and balding John Travolta), a DEA agent taking his salaries from the US government, the independent pot dealers and the cartel. This Stone coketail of a film unleashes the unrestrained violence of the real drug war, as well as the lingering 60s sexuality that developed around lots of weed smoking and coke snorting. But “Savages” will not become the typical teen-friendly summer movie. The self-indulgent trio, who get stoned, have sex, surf and eat fine meals stop far short of becoming heroes of a masterpiece. But they are fun to watch and the film spanks the drug war promoters where they should feel a little pain despite their insensitivity to reality.
Reality. On July 11 The federal government filed papers to seize properties in Oakland and San Jose to shut down the nation’s largest and highest-profile medical marijuana dispensary operation. Copies of the federal Complaint for Forfeiture were taped to the front doors of the two marijuana dispensaries in Oakland and San Jose California, alleging they were “operating in violation of federal law.” In other words, the war on drugs ensures that criminal drug enterprises will continue to thrive in their business and its violence. (LA Times July 11)
Outside the movie theater, everyone can see how the Justice Department uses federal resources to arrest and prosecute individuals who comply with the medicinal cannabis laws of their state. In July, the House of Representatives voted 262 to 163 to defeat a federal budget amendment that sought to prevent the federal government from spending taxpayers’ dollars to target state compliant medical marijuana-related activities, despite the reality that most of their constituents opposed it.
Curious teens will try pot. The less curious will only drink. The curious can get punished by the cops, the less curious boozers, after reaching 18 or 21, become legal. In the movie, a 3 way romance, grown-up children seeking parents, druggie business ventures seeking to expand or limit risks, and lots of sex and violence, make a sure-fire combo for cinematic success. At the end – two endings, actually — you might ask: “So who are the real savages?” And “what makes them uncivilized?”
Saul Landau’s WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP screens August 3 at he San Jose Peace and Justice Center, 48 South 7th St., San Jose CA., and on August 14 at Washington DC’s Avalon Theater, 5612 Connecticut Ave NW, 8 PM. More info at: http://saullandau.com/