By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Hey, it’s a savage stoner flick from Oliver Stone.
Savages is an R-rated crime thriller about sex, drugs, and – not rock-‘n’-roll but – money, power, and violence. Mostly the latter.
Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson play Ben and Chon — the former a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, the latter a former U.S. Navy Seal – lifelong friends who are also marijuana-growing-and-dealing partners operating near the California-Mexico border.
Salma Hayek is ironfisted Mexican dope-biz cartel leader Elena, who is looking to control their powerful crop.
That’s why Elena and her merciless, loathsome chief enforcer, played by Benicio Del Toro, kidnap the free-spirited Laguna Beach woman whom both Ben and Chon are intimately involved with in a menage a trois, Ophelia, the film’s narrator, played by Blake Lively.
Then Ben and Chon, with the help of some of Chon’s Seal buddies, cross over from the dark side to the darker side and plan an elaborate rescue operation that leads to additional shootouts, holdups, fakeouts, and kidnappings.
And John Travolta, as a Drug Enforcement Administration agent playing both sides of the street; Demian Bichir, as a tough cartel member; and Emile Hirsch, as a money launderer, round out an ensemble cast in which the more mature supporting players clearly outshine the three young leads.
This pulpy, blood-soaked fiction comes from Stone, the director of such thoughtful, ambitious, and controversial works as Platoon, JFK, and Born on the Fourth of July. But it registers as a companion piece to his more hard-edged and problematic over-the-top-a-thons as Natural Born Killers, U-Turn, and Alexander.
Stone co-wrote the spotty, thickly plotted screenplay with Shane Salerno and Don Winslow, whose best-selling 2010 novel the script is adapted from. If appealing characters populated Stone’s genre-juggling screenplay — which is part thriller, part black comedy, part Jules and Jim-ish romantic triangle, part drug drama, and part exercise in ultra-violence – we wouldn’t mind the switches in tone as much. And Stone helps us go with the flow with breakneck pacing, sustained intensity, and comedic punctuation – and his military background eventually comes in real handy.
But the film is also gratuitously brutal and gory and thoroughly unpleasant, with an array of characters who don’t come close to deserving the well-over-two-hours of attention that we’re forced to lavish on them.
The acting is generally effective and appropriate to the material. And if there is a standout, it’s Ms. Salek’s riveting bad-gal turn, which offers much more nuance than we’ve come to expect from the typical drug-war villain.
But despite more than enough evidence of Stone’s technical skill in the director’s chair, his characters and milieu are so repellent — as everyone either enthusiastically embraces or, when push comes to shove values aside, comes to embrace – up-close-and-impersonal savagery. Throw in gratuitous, exploitational torture scenes and a hedging-your-bets ending, and you’ve got a craftsmanlike thriller that’s soulless, humorless, and pointless – just a Stone’s throw from detestable.
So we’ll kidnap 2 stars out of 4 for Oliver Stone’s brutal and off-putting drug-cartel thriller, Savages, in which savage trumps savvy to such an extent that we just want to leave this Stone unturned.