Ditching his recent respectability vibe, Oliver Stone gets outrageous and visceral again in his new thriller, “Savages,” a pulp-fest based on the Don Winslow novel about weed and greed. The result is a summer Oliver Stone movie, and that’s fine. But its story requires some soul with the sizzle.
While closer to “Natural Born Killers” than to Stone’s Vietnam films or “Wall Street,” the film features themes of power, politics, money and base human behavior, along with Stone-specific weed-is-good and Hollywood-style David-and-Goliath elements.
Co-written by Stone, Winslow and Shane Salverno, the drama centers on two peaceful Laguna Beach marijuana entrepreneurs: Buddhist botanist Ben (Aaron Johnson) and “baddist” ex-SEAL Chon (Taylor Kitsch). They share a thriving business, a beachfront home and a girlfriend named Ophelia (Blake Lively), aka O.
After establishing, to an unnecessary degree, that these drug-dealing characters are underdogs and good guys — Chon, damaged from his military experience, believes “drugs are a rational response to insanity” while Ben gives his riches to villages in developing countries — the story kicks into action: A ruthless Baja cartel aims to take over the pair’s enterprise.
When Chon and Ben reject the cartel’s offer, the group’s ruthless leader Elena (Salma Hayek) orders henchman Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap O. To come up with the ransom, Chon and Ben must play savagely.
Torture, bombings, decapitations and another kidnapping occur. A corrupt DEA agent (John Travolta) adds to the muck.
While he’ll never be Martin Scorsese or Terrence Malick in terms of prowess or profundity, Stone is a big-screen-thinking artist who makes entertaining, engrossing cinema with a distinct personality.
With its crazed montages, style mash-ups, over-the-top gore and deftly integrated social-issue bits, the film reflects his message that the war on drugs turns people into savages.
But surface heat can sustain a 130-minute movie with aspirations of underlying tragedy for only so long. Eventually, the gratuitous violence, including an extended torture sequence, stands out, and the absence of three-dimensional characters makes it impossible for the drama to resonate.
The purported meaningfulness of the Ben-Chon-Ophelia romance and the Chon-Ben bromance doesn’t come across. O is a dimly written woman-in-danger device saddled with lines like “I had orgasms, he had wargasms.”
It doesn’t help, either, that the actors playing the heroes are lightweights while Hayek and Del Toro’s baddies are high-voltage fun. At climax time, despite a Butch and Sundance reference, you don’t care what happens to the Americans.
Dual romantic endings — both preposterous, one with guts, the other wimpy — seal the film’s status as an ultimately frustrating deal.
Starring Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek
Written by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, Oliver Stone.
Directed by Oliver Stone
Running time 2 hours 10 minutes