Both factions in Oliver Stone's new movie refer to each other, not without reason, as "savages." But this drug-war thriller is not nearly so feral as such previous Stone rampages as U-Turn and Natural Born Killers. Occasionally, it even seems righteous.
Adapted from Don Winslow's 2010 best-seller, Savages pits laid-back, hedonistic Californians against brutal, hegemonic Mexicans. The former are the happy Laguna Beach threesome of Chon, Ben and O (Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson and Blake Lively); the latter are led by Tijuana-based Elena (a bewigged Salma Hayek), with Lado (a pompadoured Benicio Del Toro) as her north-of-the-border enforcer. In the middle is a doubly corrupt DEA agent (a balding John Travolta).
Elena's cartel is being squeezed in Mexico, so she's decided to hit a soft — and lucrative — target. Ben, a botanical genius with a Bono-like taste for globe-trotting altruism, cultivates "some of the best weed in the world." He doesn't like gangster tactics, but he does have muscle: His longtime pal Chon is a former Navy SEAL and Iraq war veteran. Both guys are sexually entwined with O, the dope-loving party girl who's also the film's narrator.
Ben and Chon don't want to work for Elena, and so are insufficiently deferential to her emissary (Demian Bichir, Oscar-nominated last year for A Better Life). Initially, they don't realize he's making them an offer they can't refuse.
Elena, listening in on the conversation, is angered by their remarks. (Apparently unconcerned about being traced, characters in the movie regularly video-chat with each other, and even send incriminating images of their brutal murders across the Net.)
To assure the deal, Elena has O kidnapped and demands a substantial ransom. With the help of their money launderer (an Emile Hirsch cameo), Ben and Chon try to raise the cash. When that doesn't work, Chon calls his old battle comrades — and the "basically Buddhist" Ben has to determine if he loves O enough to kill to get her back. This being an Oliver Stone movie, his decision is not hard to anticipate.
One inevitable irony here: Stone, and the film, are on the Yanks' side, yet Hayek's and del Toro's performances register more strongly than do the one-dimensional turns of Lively (petulant), Johnson (cool) and Kitsch (naked).
Savages is flashy in the director's usual manner, with slow- and fast-motion footage, lurid animations and sequences in washed-out or hypersaturated color. Unlike in some of Stone's movies, however, these stylistic tics make a certain narrative sense. When the color drains from images of O, for example, that might signify her fate; early in the story, she cautions that just because she's narrating the tale doesn't necessarily mean she survives it.
This isn't one of Stone's political films, but it does offer parallels between the Iraq war and the narco one. In particular, a grisly torture scene illustrates the argument made by critics of "enhanced interrogation": People subjected to horrific pain will say whatever they think their tormentors want to hear.
When not questioning the "war on terror," Stone needles another rogue American institution: the movie biz. The director furnishes Savages with multiple outcomes, as if to mock those Hollywood test-screening audiences who always seem to want a happy ending.
With a boost from Jeff Lynne's "Do Ya," the filmmaker delivers one. It's not enough to justify the movie's sadism, or its over-padded length. But the playful way Stone flips the mood demonstrates a command of the material he hasn't shown in more than a decade.