With Savages, director Oliver Stone sets aside the highfalutin’ airs of his last few pictures (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, W, World Trade Center) and cuts loose with his idea of a fun summer movie — a lurid, fast-paced thriller about two California pot farmers whose mutual girlfriend is kidnapped by a rival Mexican cartel. This is the Stone of Natural Born Killers and U Turn and Any Given Sunday, a director whose flair for absurdist excess and merciless satire can turn off viewers of milder sensibilities.
But Savages is something those other movies were not: Aggressively, defiantly stupid. Based on Don Winslow’s well-regarded page-turner (he also co-wrote the script), the movie has a propulsive energy that suits Stone well as he recounts exactly how Chon (Taylor Kitsch), an ex-Navy SEAL and veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, and Ben (Aaron Johnson), a college grad who majored in business and botany, built a marijuana empire that turned them into millionaires. Using surreal visuals and montage, Stone lays in the details needed to make you buy the movie’s central premise — that these two ordinary guys, with no connection to organized crime and no experience in the drug trade, became happy-go-lucky beachfront kingpins.
Those early scenes also introduce one of Savages’ more preposterous conceits: The lovely, bird-brained Ophelia (Blake Lively), who prefers to go by “O” and lives in carnal communion with the two guys, letting them take turns with her in the sack, and sometimes just sharing her bed with both of them at the same time. Even for an Oliver Stone movie, the scenario is an awful lot to swallow. What kind of woman would ever agree to this? What two heterosexual men, no matter how close, would be comfortable with this arrangement? But you go with it, at least initially, because the entire plot hinges on their harmonious three-way union, a bromance with a woman thrown in for sexual release.
So when Ophelia is kidnapped by Elena (Salma Hayek), a Mexican drug lord who wants to force the gringos to share their profits, the guys resort to desperate measures to get her back. How else will they have sex? The title of Savages is meant as a bitter joke: Everyone in the movie, from Elena’s murderous goons (led by Benicio Del Toro) to a crooked DEA agent (John Travolta) to the likable heroes, will commit extreme acts in order to get what they want. The war on drugs turns everyone into animals. That’s the only political statement Stone is out to make here, other than smoking pot is not necessarily a bad thing.
The rest of Savages is supposed to be pure, if brutal, entertainment, pulp fiction with an unusually graphic punch. Stone’s reliance on practical effects (real blood squibs, actual fireballs instead of CGI) is refreshing in an increasingly sterile action-film landscape, and there are a couple of expertly executed set pieces, such as an armored raid by Chon and Ben on a rival’s camp, or Ophelia’s suspenseful shopping spree at a mall, that prove the director remains in full control of his prodigious technical gifts. This is a grand-looking movie (the cinematographer is Daniel Mindel, who also shot Star Trek and John Carter) and the editing is precise. Stone takes moments many other directors might ignore — such as a potential speeding ticket that threatens to erupt into violence — and expands them into big, memorable beats.
But to what end? The superb craftsmanship and care behind Savages only helps to underscore what an asinine, unconvincing picture this is. Kitsch, Johnson and Lively are all young, beautiful actors, but they have the combined screen presence of a cactus: During a dinner scene, when Ophelia name-checks Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, your mind drifts for a moment, wondering what Savages might have been like if Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katharine Ross in these roles. Then you realize they would have never starred in such a crummy, half-baked movie.
Stone hasn’t been controversial for a while now — even his much-hyped biopic of President George W. Bush was greeted by yawns — and you can feel him pushing Savages to extremes, eager to regain his edge. Instead, though, he comes off as desperate. There’s an inexcusably prolonged torture scene in the movie that is obviously meant to outdo the ear-slicing bit in Reservoir Dogs. But where Tarantino used suggestion and restraint and bleak, ironic humor, Stone just gives us repeated close ups of grotesque gore and the sight of a talented actor humiliating himself for the sake of shock value. The scene goes on for so long, it becomes offensive, because you get the feeling Stone regards the audience as idiots.
Savages is filled with similarly insulting elements: Del Toro’s pathetic Mexican accent, which is as convincing as that of the Taco Bell chihuahua; the incessant voice-over narration by Lively, which makes you wish her captors would tape her mouth shut; the ridiculous premise that a woman such as Elena, who spends her days sitting on pillowed couches getting foot massages, could really maintain control of such a dangerous, volatile crew of killers. Worst of all, what pushes Savages from merely mediocre into outright awful is the ending, a bait-and-switch cop-out of such enormous proportions, it becomes the biggest shock in the movie. After rubbing your face in garish excess for more than two hours, the film punks out and turns into a Lifetime movie. Savages talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk: For the first time in his hallowed career, Stone comes off as a poseur.
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Demián Bichir, Emile Hirsch.
Director: Oliver Stone.
Screenwriters: Shane Salermo, Don Winslow, Oliver Stone. Based on the novel by Winslow.
Producers: Moritz Borman, Eric Kopeloff.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 127 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, explicit sex, graphic violence, extreme gore, drug use, unconvincing Mexican accents. Opens Friday July 6 at area theaters.