Salma Hayek in Savages is One of the Most Underrated Movie Gangsters

Discount Salma Hayek’s gangster leader Elena Sánchez at your peril. She’s the real reason Oliver Stone’s movie is called Savages.

Salma Hayek in Oliver Stone's Savages
Photo: Universal Pictures

“You thought I wouldn’t notice,” cartel boss Elena Sánchez (Salma Hayek) demands of her loyal caporegime Ludo (a physically and emotionally imposing Benicio del Toro). The brutal and effective killer does not defend himself when the head of his family, and boss of bosses, slaps him with the force of a bull whip. He doesn’t even flinch. That would mean death. Oliver Stone’s Savages may not be his most renowned mob movie offering, but Hayek’s drug lord is one of cinema’s most groundbreaking gangsters.

Stone is no stranger to iconic gangsters. He wrote the screenplay for Brian De Palma’s Scarface, which brought Al Pacino’s coke-fueled Cuban political asylum seeker, Tony Montana, into celluloid’s perennial rogue’s gallery. For his 2012 cartel twist of a gangster film, Savages, Stone let Hayek reset the template. Her Elena Sánchez is street smart, tech savvy and a wiz at business. Her venture is so cut-throat, her underlings sever heads in their enthusiasm. Sánchez commands that much loyalty. Her gang decapitates wayward members, rivals and other stray wolves to bring lambs into the fold. They capture the proceedings on video which they send as messages in introductory offers of hostile takeovers.

Our ostensible heroes in this environment are Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who’ve been friends since high school. Ben went to Berkeley and took botany classes; Chon went into the military and took seeds. The latter’s tour of duty in Iraq left him seething with trauma but well-trained tactically. His tour in Afghanistan left him tactless, but introduced him to the finest marijuana in the known world. The pair now run a multimillion-dollar cani-business in the era when the plant was on the verge of becoming legalized on the West Coast. They, and their mutual live-in girlfriend O (Blake Lively), are idealists, using their new wealth to invest in philanthropy. Sánchez’s cartel wants them to join the “family.” It is a renowned and venerable matriarchy.

Sánchez’s enterprise is larger than Vito Corleone’s in The Godfather, but then she is a wise and tough-nurturing godmother. Nicknamed La Reina, the boss of the Mexican Baja Cartel doesn’t merely conquer her competitors, she destroys idealism. To get the thing she wants, Elena kidnaps the thing Ben and Chon love most, O. This is a talent, discovering the things which people most treasure. When Tom Hagen reported back to his don in The Godfather, the family father discerned the Hollywood bigshot Jack Woltz loved his prized racehorse more than any other thing on earth. He sent a message.

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Elena’s most potent message is a niche-meme of sorts. While streaming live footage of O in tortuous circumstances, she cuts to an animation of O’s head popping off, leaving an ever-increasing stain of blood which ultimately covers the screen. That’s her horse’s head. This is a message movie and that’s “the word.”  Hayek is a versatile performer. She brought black comedy subtlety to her roles in The Faculty and Dogma; sensual earth tones to Frida; and romantic fantasy into Once Upon a Time In Mexico. She ratted out her gangster boss in Everly, but made her bones as an assassin in The Hitman’s Bodyguard. Hayek has also proven herself a master thief, stealing From Dusk Till Dawn with one scene which she shared with George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, and a snake. In Savages, Hayek is allowed to be something female characters are routinely denied: ruthless, amoral, and savage.

Hayek presents a straightforward boss with strong family values. Elena Sánchez took over the cartel after the deaths of her husband and twin sons, but there is no room for irony for the Black Widow character. Hayek expertly balances public bravado and private sorrow. Elena is wise, like someone who paid attention to the lessons of different generations. Warnings about getting high on your own supply, and underestimating the other guy’s greed, would sound perfectly natural coming out her mouth. She’s the antithesis of her prisoner, whom she calls Ophelia after sensing the young woman exudes the need for a mother’s accumulated knowledge. Elena’s own actual daughter similarly rejects the past in the movie, but this is a gangster film tradition, sadly. Every mob boss wants their children to move into a thriving legitimate world. Elena says her daughter is “ashamed of me and I’m proud of her for it.”

The gangland dictator’s only vulnerability is her teenage daughter. It is also Elena’s strength. A mob godfather chalks blood up as an expense. Elena, the mother, is not only capable of doing anything for her children, but also justifying any action because it is done for her children. She only took over the cartel because her son was weak and would have been killed. This makes her character fearless.  

Regardless of the hard-bodied eye candy, Taylor-Johnson, Kitsch, and Lively are bland next to Hayek and del Toro, who see entitlement and philanthropy as disgusting conceits of wealth and soft privilege. Lively’s Ophelia is not a deep, William Shakespeare tragic figure. She’s Paris Hilton in a hemp halter top, a seeming trophy for the nouveau stoner rich. O neither shocks nor impresses the crime queen, whose got hideaways and mansions scattered internationally for whim or lam.

“There’s something wrong with your love story, baby,” wise mob boss Elena notes like she’s doling out favors at her daughter’s wedding. “They may love you but they will never love you as much as they love each other. Otherwise they wouldn’t share you, would they?” Their ménage a trois relationship is also seen as absolutely savage to del Toro’s Lado.

The Mexican gang think the gringos lack dignity, tradition, family, and honor. The Californians are appalled by the brutality of the narco-traffickers from south of the border where torture is a routine cost of doing the business. Local D.E.A. agent Dennis (John Travolta) puts his trust in graft. He skims profit from Elena, accepts bribes from her rival El Azul, as well as Lado, and Ben and Chon. Yet he is surprised when he gets bit on the hand at feeding time. “You stabbed a federal agent,” he moans as his faith is shaken in a scene reminiscent of the death of Mel Bernstein in Scarface. Sadly, it only expands Dennis’ jurisdiction.

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It is noted in the film that Elena is counting on the reelection of a specific mayor to retain her power base in Mexico. Stone directed the 2009 documentary South of the Border, which presented the untold histories of leftist Latin American presidents. Savages, a commercial film, presents the cultural relationship between Anglo-Americans and Latinos in a way mainstream Hollywood films rarely attempt. Most of this is done through normalizing sequences which act as allegorical bridges, such as when Elena flips back and forth between English and Spanish when chastising Lado and the high-ranking cartel accountant Alex Reyes (Demián Bichir). She is as much a mob representative as when Lado greets Ben with a warm “Welcome to the barrio” as he lets him into his Tijuana hotel suite.

Elena brings an entirely new and unique reworking of the South American narco boss cliché. This is best illustrated with the most subtle of the film’s social commentary, delivered by del Toro, who’d previously won an Oscar for his role in the drug war film Traffic. When Lado drops by Dennis’ house, he’s backed by a landscaping crew packing chainsaws.

Savages is an adaptation of Don Winslow’s pulp fiction novel but only hints at the violence journalist Ioan Grillo wrote about in the book El Narco. The film is set in Southern California’s Laguna Beach, which is close to the province of the Sinaloa Cartel. The film says Elena heads the Baja Cartel, which has operated in the U.S. for years. Sandra Avila Beltran was known as La Reina del Pacifico, but Elena’s circumstances more loosely resemble Veronica Mireya Moreno “La Flaca” Carreon, the first known female leader of the Los Zetas gang of San Nicolas de los Garza near northern Mexico.

The authentic blend of known crime figures brings an immediacy to the character. Hayek’s realism registers subconsciously, adding shades to the gangster persona which blur into a real person. It also instills a real sense of peril. We worry about the antihero.

But never forget, Elena is a badass. Savages reflects the violence of the then-ongoing drug wars in Mexico. It looks real and feels painful. The first shot the audience gets of the cartel is a blood-slicked concrete floor, headless bodies and decapitated heads, and Lado in a Lucha Libre freestyle wrestler mask. Elena’s crew is one of the most efficiently lethal in the business. Anything less is unacceptable. Lado calls in a debt on lost years from a former attorney by shooting him in both knee caps. He retires Esteban, the henchman who watched over Ophelia while she was in captivity, because he is too soft.

One thing which separates Savages from the many drug war genre films is how Stone mixes media. He artfully moves through visual formats, color schemes, black and white grit, webcam and cell-phone video pixelation, though all of this is restrained when compared with Natural Born Killers. In that film, the villains were strong but powerless, hurled by forces beyond their control. In Savages, Elena exudes authority. “We didn’t make you an offer to hear a counteroffer,” she explains confidently, turning the screw on mere offers you can’t refuse. “We made you a deal to which we expected compliance.”

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Stone is as fascinated by power as he is repelled by it. Like many gangster and Stone films, the mobsters at the center of Savages are allegories. Stone took on financial criminals in Wall Street, and here Elena’s cartel is likewise a modern corporation of sorts, putting the squeeze on the little guy. It’s the same thing real-life Bronx bootlegger Dutch Schultz did when he took over the Harlem numbers racket. The Sánchez expansion is the same as when the Corleone family moved in on Las Vegas. Elena muscles in during negotiations, dropping golden parachutes with balloon interests, percentages, sliding scales over three years, and other buzz-killing business school collateral damage. Even as talks deteriorate, Sánchez keeps a cooler head than Tony Montana and is able to strategize in the long term.

Her operations are brazen. When negotiations aren’t being carried out via computer, business is conducted in public, under the protective shield of a small squadron of snipers. Her hackers are as expert as Ben and Chon’s. All of this was within state of the art, real-time operations, which further solidifies Sánchez’s bona fides. Stone spent 15 months of combat duty in Vietnam, and assigned Kitsch to train with a Navy SEAL advisor during filming. Blakely told Collider she “met a little girl who had been kidnapped by the Mexican drug cartel.  We met people in, of all areas, the marijuana field.” Hayek spoke with members of drug gangs.

“I actually talked to some people involved in the cartel that described, on two different occasions, women that have gotten quite high in the cartel,” Hayek told Collider.  “As a matter of fact, they are incredibly efficient, much more so than men… The women are actually colder. The guy gets angry and thinks he has to do something, and the women are not like that. They are all about the business. They’re not about the vendetta, or who is more macho. They’re about getting things done.”

Elena Sánchez gets things done, and she does it with style. This is a real gangster policy which goes all the way back to Arnold Rothstein, who cleaned up street thugs like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, put them in suits, and taught them which forks to use at dinner. Dutch Shultz laid out a small fortune to outfit his outfit in the latest fashion. In Dead End, Baby Face Martin (Humphrey Bogart) shows off his silk suit, tailor-made.  The gangsters in Sergio Leone’s mob masterpiece Once Upon A Time in America wore wingtip collars. In American Gangster, Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas blows his cover to drape himself in a chinchilla coat.

Hayek set Elena’s style in stone, wearing the same diamond necklace and silken black wig in every scene. “These women know they are going to be an icon and they create a character,” she told THR.  “These women design themselves. They don’t want to be versatile. They want you to always remember them.”

Elena Sánchez may only remember Ben and Chon by their nicknames, “Nothing Personal” and “Eat Shit Caviar,” but Salma Hayek presents an unforgettable cinematic crime boss. Savages lives up to its title because Hayek cultivates the untamed natural state with unnatural ease. Sánchez knows enough not to keep too high a profile on “most wanted” lists, but as a gangster, she should never be underestimated.

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