Ham-fisted tale of sex, drugs, murder

There's a fine line between pulp and pretense with Oliver Stone. From his early directorial outing, 1981's The Hand (Michael Caine loses his appendage, but it comes back, ferociously!), to his 1991 hallucinogenic rock bio The Doors, to his hyperactive homicidal-twosome movie, 1994's Natural Born Killers, Stone has a tendency to inflate what is essentially genre fare with grandiosity, with portentous gab.

And when he's not busy rewriting history (Nixon, W., JFK) or examining war (Platoon) or football (Any Given Sunday) or finance (Wall Street) or 9/11 (World Trade Center), the prolific filmmaker screeches his car wheels back onto B-movie turf: drugs, sex, and guns.

Which is where Savages, adapted from the novel by Don Winslow, comes in. Opening with ominously shaky video of masked goons and cowering hostages, Savages is all about a trio of beautiful Laguna Beach pot dealers who run afoul of a Mexican cartel, and of the DEA.

But it's also, in a big way, a love story: of three bronzed So-Cal hedonists, Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch), and O (for Ophelia - played by Blake Lively), who live together in beachfront splendor, happily toking, drinking, and menage-ing as the sun sinks gloriously into the sea.

In fact, before Benicio Del Toro (as the villainous cartel enforcer) and John Travolta (as a double-dealing Drug Enforcement agent) make their hambone entrances, I thought Stone was redoing Truffaut's Jules and Jim: two guys and a girl, love pulling them every which way.

It is Lively's O who supplies the purple-prose voice-overs that run through (or run over) Savages, starting with this canny conundrum: "Just because I'm telling you this story doesn't mean that I'm alive at the end of it. It's that kind of a story, where things got so out of control. . . . "

A few more of O's bon mots: "Dope's supposed to be bad. But in a bad, bad world, it's good."

And this one, describing her sex life with Chon, a veteran of several tours of Afghanistan - and the muscle, so to speak, in the outfit: "I have orgasms," she says, as we watch Chon and O acrobatically going at it. "He has wargasms."

Subtlety has no place in this world, this movie. Just watch Salma Hayek as Elena, the boss behind the Mexicans. In her stiletto heels and jet-black Bettie Page 'do, she's a Latina vixen - dealing out tarot cards and death sentences with equal ardor. When it's time to hop the plane from Baja for a meet across the border, she calls her destination Gringoland - with utmost contempt.

And who knows if it was Del Toro's idea, or Stone's, but at a particularly crucial - and criminal - moment, as a very bad thing is about to occur, the actor twirls his mustache menacingly, like a Mexican Snidely Whiplash.

Yes, Savages is that kind of story.

Savages ** (out of four stars)

Directed by Oliver Stone. With Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, and John Travolta. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 mins.

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, drugs, sex, nudity, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies


Directed by Oliver Stone. With John Travolta, Aaron Johnson, Benicio Del Toro, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch, Demain Bichir. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout).