Oliver Stone’s mash-up of film-noir grit and The CW sparkle works only in fits and starts
It’s not that I couldn’t believe a ménage-à-trois between a botanist-entrepreneur-philanthropist, a bubble-headed Southern California princess, and a haunted and hard-bitten veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I just don’t believe the one that’s at the center of Oliver Stone’s latest, “Savages.”
Fans of Don Winslow’s acclaimed novel, which I have not read, have obviously embraced these characters in both the source material and his recently-published sequel, but somewhere between the page and the screen (Winslow gets co-adapter credit, with Stone and Shane Salerno), these central characters have been reduced from real-seeming people to glossy, convenient archetypes.
The key word being “glossy,” as Stone and cinematographer Dan Mindel (“John Carter,” J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek”) introduce us to brainy and committed Ben (Aaron Johnson), tough guy Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and breezy O (Blake Lively) under a gleaming California sun that makes everything look like a Bain du Soleil commercial.
Ben grows extraordinary marijuana with sky-high THC counts and devotes much of the proceeds to third-world schools and local medicinal co-ops, with Chon providing the occasional muscle needed to keep the bad guys from harshing Ben’s mellow. O (short for “Ophelia”) loves them both, leading to sex scenes with each (and both) where her flesh is always more covered than the boys’. That’s what happens when you date a girl with a no-nudity contract.
Ruining their buzz is a Mexican drug cartel that wants in on their action. The guys are initially resistant to the idea and decide to pull up stakes and flee, but the narcotraficantes kidnap O to force Ben and Chon’s hand. Once things get personal, Ben and Chon go on the offensive, attacking the cartel all the way up the food chain to godmother “La Reina” Irena (Salma Hayek), while scummy DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta, sporting his natural hairline for once) plays both sides.
It’s almost a relief when O gets nabbed, because that’s the moment when “Savages” segues from being a ludicrous, druggy SoCal fantasia to a pulpy, trashy noir flick. The movie doesn’t get any less ridiculous, but at least it develops a pulse, as both camps live up to the title and commit monstrous acts upon one another.
Things fall apart at the end in a way that won’t be revealed here, but the climax smacks of either screenwriter desperation, directorial indecision or “this worked in the book” — in any event, the last few minutes manage to fritter away a majority of whatever goodwill “Savages” has accrued.
Speaking of screenwriter desperation, the use of narration often feels like a tip-off that the filmmakers are taking the lazy way out of bringing us into a story; that’s definitely the case here, and having Blake Lively as the narrator certainly doesn’t help matters. (Nor do lines like “I have orgasms; Chon has war-gasms.”)
Johnson reveals a side of himself not shown in earlier films like “Kick-Ass” while Kitsch is perfectly serviceable as a character roiled with inner torment. If “Savages” happens to follow “John Carter” and “Battleship” into box-office oblivion, Kitsch won’t have to shoulder any of the blame for his participation.
It’s the old pros who walk away with the movie, from Benicio Del Toro as a creepy cartel enforcer to Travolta’s sleazy Teflon Fed. Hayek, from her stentorious line readings to her Dragon Lady wig, chews the scenery with picante relish; you almost wish she could have replaced Julia Roberts or Charlize Theron in their Snow White movies, because this is one evil queen.
Stone and his crew go out of their way to balance things out — both the Mexicans and the gringos have a sensitive guy who pukes when someone dies — but it’s hard to escape the notion that the heroes, such as they are, are the white folks while the villains are almost all brown. That’s the kind of argument to save for a more serious movie, where all the characters aren’t cartoons.
Ultimately, the best thing about “Savages” is that it’s never dull. Just don’t be fooled into taking it remotely seriously for even a second.