The disreputable Oliver Stone of old makes a largely welcome reappearance with “Savages.” Pungent, nasty and teeming with colorful crooked types, the writer-director’s most vibrant (and violent) work in some time is a bracingly sordid saga of two young pot growers, the Orange County princess they love and the vicious Mexican cartel they get entangled with; imagine “Jules and Jim” with bombs and beheadings and you’re halfway there. Even when it softens the impact of Don Winslow’s scorching novel, this R-rated Universal release bristles with tension, and will likely enjoy a brief B.O. high that should last longer in ancillary.
An acidly funny chronicle of sex, drugs, murder and corruption of every stripe, Winslow’s attention-grabbing 2010 novel seemed so tailor-made for Stone that it was fast-tracked into his hands shortly after publication. Following a string of films that found the director playing uncharacteristically nice with sometimes politically loaded material (“World Trade Center,” “W.” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”), “Savages” offers nothing more nor less than a rude blast of cinematic energy, invigorating in its foulness and refreshing in its lack of self-importance.
Populated by wasted beauties and ruthless thugs, and shot through with moments of black humor and hair-trigger intensity, this bloody, scuzzy cocktail of a movie assuredly won’t be to every taste. Something similar could be said of the Afghanistan-derived super-cannabis harvested and distributed by peace-loving, environment-friendly Ben (Aaron Johnson) and his more volatile partner, Chon (Taylor Kitsch), an ex-Navy SEAL who’s not afraid to get nasty when their clients do the same.
These Laguna Beach layabouts share not only a successful business but also a lover, Ophelia, aka O (Blake Lively), a blonde babe whose interests include shopping, smoking pot and keeping her boys happy. “For me, they are one big man,” O murmurs in hazy voiceover, one of several lines that may leave the viewer unsure whether to laugh or toke up. Even still, the tonally tricky script (by Shane Salerno, Stone and Winslow) seems inclined to take these characters at least somewhat seriously, jettisoning much of the satirical distance and scalding humor that made the novel a merciless evisceration of affluent O.C. culture.
Dan Mindel’s gorgeous beachfront cinematography lends the early scenes an idyllic, dreamlike beauty that quickly fades when Ben and Chon turn down representatives of the Baja California cartel, who want to mass-market the duo’s extremely potent product. Soon O is kidnapped (from the mall, natch), taken to Mexico and locked up in a grungy Mexican compound run by ball-breaking cartel queen Elena (Salma Hayek) and her vile deputy, Lado (Benicio Del Toro). Rounding out this human circus are Lado’s dapper colleague (Demian Bichir) and a dirty-dealing DEA agent (John Travolta, proudly displaying a receding hairline), both of whom, in keeping with the story’s topsy-turvy moral logic, turn out to be more sympathetic than expected.
Preposterous as much of it is, the tale nonetheless generates a certain cross-cultural fascination as these narcissistic, nihilistic but highly resourceful kids find themselves down Mexico way. Indeed, the rest of the plot, propelled by shootings, stabbings and a few well-placed explosives, plays out like a contest to see which of these two warring factions can best live up to the description of the title.
For all its moment-to-moment ferocity, the film becomes a kinder, gentler thing than its source material, defanged by O’s wispy, philosophizing narration and a twisty cop-out of an ending. Yet if “Savages” never quite captures the novel’s diamond-hard sarcasm, it offers other satisfactions in its visceral immediacy, its overriding sense of danger and a clutch of performances that, whatever one’s reservations about the characters, can’t help but court the viewer’s emotional investment.
Because Ben, Chon and O are written to seem so vacuous from the outset, their occasional flashes of pluck and intelligence register as virtual epiphanies. Admittedly, Kitsch doesn’t have much more to do than play a slightly screw-loose killing machine, while Lively tends to stay in damsel-in-distress mode before gradually asserting herself in the final stretch. That leaves Johnson (“Kick-Ass”) to do most of the dramatic heavy lifting, as desperate circumstances push Ben from gormless pacifist to fierce man of action.
Holding the screen to far more galvanizing effect is Del Toro’s loathsome Lado, looking murderously unstable even when he’s not shooting guys in the kneecaps. And Hayek, wearing a long Cleopatra wig, sinks her teeth into her meatiest role in some time as a formidable yet not invulnerable crime boss who has made enormous sacrifices to build authority in her domain.
Up-to-the-minute technology provides a key storytelling assist, as both sides use TV and computer screens to negotiate with, threaten and spy on each other. Video footage, including some grisly evidence of the cartel’s more unspeakable crimes, is deftly interwoven by a trio of editors who maintain an electric pace throughout.
Stylistically, the picture isn’t quite as unhinged as one might expect or want, though the intense color palette sometimes fades to monochrome in an attempt to convey a sort of druggy poetry. Shooting widescreen on 35mm with anamorphic lenses, Mindel achieves a hot, sizzling look that suits the locations (Malibu, Los Angeles and Orange County) as well as Tomas Voth’s production design, capturing lives of upper-class privilege and south-of-the-border squalor.