OLIVER STONE examines the war on drugs in "Savages" and finds it a mostly futile exercise, useful mainly as a source of garish material for wigged-out R-rated movies like this one.
It's not a Stone polemic, by any means, but the director (on the cover of this month's High Times) does give us a utopian view of what a world of legalized pot might look like. Aaron Johnson plays Ben, a botanist who's developed a superpotent marijuana product that's sold like Starbucks in California, to grateful chemo patients and glaucoma sufferers. Ben is also a pacifist and Buddhist and philanthropist who donates profits to provide solar panels and $15 laptops to folks in Africa.
His partner, yin to his yang, is Chon (Taylor Kitsch), purportedly an ex-SEAL who left California a surfer and came back a killer — a ruthless, hair-trigger enforcer for the partnership's less-legal enterprises.
The success of the latter business attracts the attention of a bloodthirsty Mexican cartel (Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro, Demian Bichir) looking for a foothold in the U.S. market. Thus is set in motion a dizzying hostile takeover plot with double agents (John Travolta) and multiple double crosses.
Much of it so detailed it has to be explained via voice-over by Blake Lively, one-third of a mutually agreeable love triangle with Ben and Chon. This makes her a soft target for the cartel, and she's kidnapped in order to bring her lovers to heel.
Stone adapted "Savages" from Don Winslow's popular book (Winslow worked on the screenplay), but it has touches that are pure Oliver. He has an obvious crush, for instance, on Lively, who is photographed with every lens and filter in the Stone arsenal, tossing her hair in slo-mo. And she's playing Stone's kind of gal — high most of the time, likes to shop, eager to please, happy to be passed from guy to guy.
Hayek plays the other Stone archetype — the bossy, scolding woman, and although you do not want to be the kind of lass who busts stones in a Stone movie, Hayek, bless her heart, makes the most of it.
The movie's sporadic outbursts of violence, kinky interludes, exaggerated star turns, inventive use of music and Stone's hyper technique give it a surface energy, but you may find yourself, after a time, less and less invested in the barbaric race to the behavioral bottom, played for grisly laughs.
There is meant to be drama in Ben's gradual moral corruption — he's the putative peacenik forced at last to do his own dirty work. But Johnson, Kitsch and Lively struggle to make an impression in a movie filled with grandstanding stars, and one questions the work habits of their characters. You could look at "Savages" as a bookend to Stone's screenplay for his drug-biz epic "Scarface," but without Montana's golden rule — never get high on your own supply.
Chon and Ben gird for battle by toking on their own superpotent pot. Is this really something Chon picked up during his years as a SEAL? I'll stick with what I saw in "Act of Valor."
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "Keep It Reel," at www.philly.com/keepitreel.
Review | ss 1/2
Directed by Oliver Stone. With Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, Demian Bichir. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 139 minutes.
Parent's guide: R (violence, sex, drugs, language)
Playing at: area theaters