Oliver Stone’s Savages: It’s the Dope

In a welcome return to his nutsy-greatsy days, the veteran director fever-dreams a drug war between California dudes and a Mexican killer cartel

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Francois Duhamel / Universal Studios

In a movie stuffed with torture, killings, a hand-impaling and an hour or so of craziness turned up to 11, one moment made a woman at a Savages screening emit an audible “Ick.” O (Blake Lively), the Blondifornia kidnap victim of a Mexican drug cartel, spits in the face of her brutal jailer Lado (Benicio Del Toro) — a big, wet ball of phlegm, as if she’s been saving it throughout her incarceration for just this moment. Lado wipes the spittle off and licks his fingers, then leans down and dries his face in her long hair. It’s icky, all right, but the scene also turns the strange intimacy of captor and captive into a little epiphany of sensuous sado-tension.

After a decade or so of suppressing his more lurid instincts, Oliver Stone is back in the bat-crap-crazy mode that made his Oscar-winning rap-sheet rep. In turning Don Winslow’s 2010 novel Savages into a movie, the writer-director returns him to his favorite early theme — the wages of drugs, in his screenplays for Midnight Express and Scarface — and the Latin American locations and ambiance of Salvador and his documentaries on Fidel Castro (Commandante) and Hugo Chàvez (South of the Border). At its wayward best, Savages summons the craftily addled mania of prime Stone product like Platoon, Natural Born Killers and U Turn: movies about people driven to the edge of madness, in film vehicles that go over the edge with them.

(MORE: Corliss on Natural Born Killers by subscribing to TIME)

Early reviewers of Winslow’s book noted that it seemed ready-made for a Stone film. That may say more about the advanced age of the critics, since the novel, with its outsize bad guys and cross-border violence, would also be suited to a younger generation of meta-action pictures: Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the original script for Natural Born Killers) or Robert Rodriguez. But Stone got the gig, allowing the 65-year-old enfant horrible to reclaim the bloody territory that he founded and they appropriated and repopulated. As timely as this week’s headlines — the movie actually anticipated Sunday’s Mexican elections won by the Institutional Revolutionary Party — Savages is also a bicultural fantasy of a hero’s blood lust and a drug boss’s maternal devotion.

Before her kidnapping, O, for Ophelia, is the shared lover of soulful Ben (Aaron Johnson) and gritty Chon (Taylor Kitsch). When not enjoying groovy three-ways of bong-enhanced sex with O, the lads run a nice little Laguna Beach marijuana business, selling medicinal weed legally but making their real money shipping the stash out of state. Ben, of the wispy beard and mild disposition, is the genius chemist, a Luther Burbank of pot. Chon, a former Navy SEAL who acts as executive enforcer, came back from Afghanistan with useful guerrilla skills and a strain of grass that Ben alchemized into a plant so potent that, as the novel notes, it “could almost get up, walk around, find a lighter, and fire itself up.” The two guys might be Esau and Jacob, but without the messy birthright part, or Jesus and Rambo; O calls them “the Buddhist” and “the baddist.”

(MORE: Corliss’s review of Oliver Stone’s South of the Border)

Now Ben and Chon have the chance to become the Ben & Jerry’s of dope. That Mexican cartel, losing market share and foot soldiers to a rival operation, has proposed to distribute the lads’ business for a modest 20% vig. No matter that altruistic Ben wants to chuck it all and save the Third World; the Mexicans, led by La Reina Elena (Salma Hayek) with Lado as her steel muscle, are loathe to take no for an answer. Besides, as Dennis (John Travolta), a corrupt federal agent whose dying wife Ben and Chon have been supplying with pain-relieving cannabis, tells them, you don’t say no to Walmart. “This stuff’ll be legal in three years,” Dennis says, so get rich now. “Embrace the change.” Adapt or die.

In the Darwinian negotiations with the cartel, Ben and Chon are at a serious disadvantage. They lead with Orange Country bravado — the sassy banter, the subtle sneer — while Elena’s gang commandeers their computer to show them snuff videos of previous transgressors, kills one of Chon’s men in his car and abducts O. They could be two surfers who stumbled into an ultimate-fighting cage with Godzilla. The boys are in the big leagues now, and their adversaries treat them with contempt; “Cheech and Chon,” Lado calls them. In retaliation, they have only two possible ploys: seizing a huge load of cartel weed with the help of Chon’s old SEALs brigade, and kidnapping Magda (Sandra Echeverría), the daughter Elena loves.

(MORE: Corliss’s cover story on Oliver Stone’s Platoon)

We’re supposed to root for Ben, Chon and O because, I guess, they’re American. And unlike Lado they don’t shoot sleazy lawyers in the legs before murdering them; nor do they end a brief job-evaluation interview with a young underling by saying, “It didn’t work out, you’re too sensitive,” and blowing his head off. Too bad that the three heroes-by-default are pretty vapid compared with the villains. Kitsch, rebounding from less compelling leads in John Carter and Battleship, has the requisite grits for Chon; but Johnson, the young English actor who seized the screen in Nowhere Boy and Kick-Ass, can’t save Ben from hippie dippiness. Lively, who got the role after Jennifer Lawrence skipped out to do The Hunger Games, shouldn’t have. An insufficient siren for her lovers and a whiny captive to boot — dissatisfied by her grub, she virtually begs for arugula — O has only one function in the plot: as bait. And frankly, her life isn’t shown as being worth saving.

The veterans, though, know how to have evil fun with their characters. Shea Whitman does fine by the corrupt lawyer’s role, a California slime bag who goes from top dog to dead dog in about a minute flat. Emile Hirsch nails the breezy amorality of his small part as Ben and Chon’s money-launderer. Hayek, in Elizabeth-Taylor-as-Cleopatra wig, has maternal gravitas to match her business-titan cojones. Travolta, 35 years into movie stardom and here brandishing an endangered-species hairline, always perks up when playing baddies; his Dennis is a bad cop and master salesman who can make any commodity seem attractive, including his own life to the murderous Lado. Del Toro, whose performances are too often the sum of their mannerisms, lives creepily inside Lado, next to whom Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface is a neutered puppy. You’ll be pleased that, in one of Savages’ shoot-out climaxes (yes, there are two), this rancidly savory character takes longer to die than Mel Gibson’s Jesus.

(MORE: Corliss on the Oliver Stone-scripted Scarface)

And if you don’t like the plot or the performances, just watch the damn movie. Cinematographer Don Mindel obviously looked at the grand work of Robert Richardson on 11 early Stone pictures. Mindel will backlight a face framed in gaudy red flora, and supersaturates the desert landscapes with a sickly glow that make them seem like nuclear testing grounds after the big boom. Stone and his three editors keep these hallucinogenic images churning at lunatic speed and add gimmicks of their own: when Ben and Chon must transport a stash from Laguna to Mexico in five hours, we see a countdown digital clock with a moon scampering across the screen to suggest fleeting time.

The whole picture moves like that, nearly overcoming the flaws of conflicted rooting interest and whatever qualms a Ben-like viewer might have about closeups of executions. Savages isn’t great cinema, but it’s a very alive movie about people who probably ought to be dead.