130 min., rated R.
Say what you will about Oliver Stone, but he's never made a boring movie, as hectoring headaches as they can be (okay, "Alexander" was pretty ponderous). Taking a look at the man's filmography—1986's "Platoon," 1989's "Born on the Fourth of July," 1994's "Natural Born Killers," 1999's "Any Given Sunday," and 2006's "World Trade Center," just to name an eclectic few—none of his films are created equal, but he has always been known for his nerve and chutzpah in hammering home thematic points. His latest, "Savages," announces his return to violent genre pulp, not far off the path from "U-Turn," Stone's nasty, offbeat thriller from 1997. When Stone makes an out-of-control tale of sex, violence, drugs, and double-crossing, you expect it to be a lunatic ride with unsavory types. Not that it provides great insight into such themes or its characters, but it's not purely a primal experience of mindless savagery either. Instead, with bursts (not an onslaught) of savage violence, "Savages" is one pulpy, trashy noir-ish ride.
"Just because I'm telling you this story, doesn't mean I'm alive at the end of it," voices O (Blake Lively), which is short for Ophelia. The dazed Laguna Beach princess is the muse-ish girlfriend of two surfer-dude, cannabis-growing entrepreneurs: Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a scarred, hard-nosed Afghanistan war vet, is the muscle of the operation, and Ben (Aaron Johnson), a dreadlocked, pacifistic Berkeley graduate with degrees in botany and business, is the brains. They're best friends, they grow and sell the best weed, and they get to share the same girl — who could complain? Nobody, until Chon and Ben are offered a proposition by a Mexican drug cartel, led by the cruel Elena "La Reina" Sánchez (Salma Hayek), who sends her right-hand man (Demián Bichir) to do all the talking. When the guys decline a "joint venture," Elena sends out her most merciless henchman, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), when she feels disrespected. Right before the threesome gets ready to book it to Indonesia, O is kidnapped, and the savagery is on.
Stone, who co-wrote the screenplay (based on Don Winslow's 2010 pulp novel) with Shane Salerno and author Winslow, has never been known for subtlety, but "Savages" is at its best when it's being gratuitously violent and trashy with a wicked sense of humor. Stone's anti-war-on-drugs message seems to be embedded in, amidst the quick but bloody violence, but he doesn't feel the need to build heavy-handed signposts, making sure we "get" it. To make up for that, O's voice-over narration is a bit of a crutch for storytelling and gives way to some laughable groaners when Lively has to speak them (i.e. "I had orgasms; he had 'wargasms'," and "Chon is cold metal, Ben is warm wood"). Then again, such purple prose seems inherent in the "Sunset Boulevard"-style noir genre and for such a druggy drug world out there. When O finally gets kidnapped, the film has a ruthless pulse, and then Stone starts to remind us that it's him at the helm, fueling his frame with canted angles and color filters. And yet here, he (thankfully) avoids much of the frantic, assaultive excess of his "Natural Born Killers." Dan Mindel's sun-baked cinematography makes SoCal look just enough like a laid-back paradise of beaches, sex, and pot, before a shadowy hell creeps in once the sun goes down. Adam Peters' offbeat music score unpredictably runs the gamut from a flamenco-flavored version of Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer" to Yuna's appropriately sunny cover of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun."
The performances from the central ménage à trois (Lively, Kitsch, and Johnson) are consistent enough, Kitsch intensely proving himself and Johnson creating the most shading, but it's the colorfully interesting supporting cast that makes "Savages" pop. Surprisingly, one of the most nuanced performances comes from the villainess. Played with delicious relish in a Cleopatra wig, Hayek spices up the "Red Queen" role, powerfully locking it down and often letting out her inner fire. As her Elena says with a poker face, she has no problem cuttin' some throats, followed by taking a bite of a lamb chop. But the Crazy Town Award goes to Del Toro, who's so menacing and despicably slimy as the sociopathic Lado that it should be a crime. And sporting his natural (and unattractive) hairline, John Travolta seems to be having a ball as the two-sided DEA with a dying wife; even more unattractive is watching the beady-eyed actor chomp on a sandwich.
When Chon and Ben turn the tables on Elena (who has an unrequited relationship with her daughter Magda), everything should come to an explosive showdown, but the film can't quite pick an ending. First, there's a satisfyingly bleak conclusion, something of a triangular-love tragedy, until Stone chickens out, yanks our chain, and rewinds, settling for a cheap, softer one. Had the story been adapted more compactly, or if Stone just trusted his first vision, "Savages" could have concluded with more punch than it does. Still, where we find Chon, Ben, and O at the end gives us a glimmer of hope and, dare we say it, emotional catharsis in an otherwise affectless world of cold-blooded, power-hungry killers. Keeping politics the hell out of it, this is a stylishly enjoyable gateway drug, at least until Mr. Stone recaptures his once-threatening mojo.