Starring Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson. Written by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, Oliver Stone. Directed by Oliver Stone. 18A. 130 min. Opens July 6.
Savages, based on the novel of the same name by Don Winslow, tells the story of two Laguna Beach entrepreneurs who grow and sell some of the best marijuana in the world. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is a brooding former Navy SEAL; his best friend, Ben (Aaron Johnson, sporting a Justin-Trudeau-inspired haircut), is a Buddhist who makes frequent trips to third-world countries and “sees himself as a healer.” Ben and Chon share a girlfriend, O, short for Ophelia (Blake Lively, whose desired look for the film seems to have been relayed to the hair and makeup department as “post-coital”). They live blissfully in a utopian house by the ocean; much of the first part of the movie is devoted to lingering shots of O having sex with one, then the other, then both of the lads, their gleaming bodies intertwined amid billowy clouds of pot smoke. But the three of them share a kind of emptiness that makes their love story the least compelling aspect of the movie.
Their idyllic arrangement is interrupted by the Mexican Baja cartel, lead by Elena Sanchez (Salma Hayek), who wants a piece of the boys’ action. When they refuse, the cartel kidnaps O, and the boys set out to get her back with the help of Dennis, a slimy DEA agent played with a delicious moral vacuity by John Travolta. The movie hovers over the subject of the Mexican drug wars, offering glimpses of its horrifying brutality, but seems to prefer the sun-kissed trio of stoners to the far more gripping dynamics of the cartel. It speaks to Oliver Stone’s treatment of the subject that, in his hands, three Americans who are perpetually getting high are clever enough to outfox the Mexican drug lords who continue to hold the country hostage.
Savages is Stone’s return to the bloody fare that he built his reputation on, and he deploys dizzying, off-kilter camera angles that mimic the disorienting pace at which the trio’s slice of paradise turns into hell on Earth. Elena’s henchman, Lado, (Benicio Del Toro) inflicts pain on his victims with frightening ease, and while the film is not overladen with blood and guts, its incidents of torture are almost comically violent. Ultimately, Stone’s vision of laid-back California excess clashing with the ruthless force of the cartels aims for gritty realism but falls just short of cartoonish.