Colorful, violent and pointless, the War on Drugs becomes pop entertainment in “Savages.”
Director Oliver Stone is seldom accused of subtlety, so he wastes no time reminding us of his mad skills. The first minute of this movie features ominous hand-held videocam in ochre, bleached and blissful black-and-white, then a bright burst of montage at eyeball scalding speed.
Adapting Don Winslow’s novel, though, turns out to be trickier than presenting a bravura display of imagery. In this battle between stoner Alta Californians and killer Baja Californios, the story chooses its good guys early. But the pull of its dark side is far more potent.
The narrator issues a warning early on. Just because she’s telling the tale, she says in voiceover, doesn’t mean she has survived. Ophelia calls herself O, but as played by Blake Lively, she’s not quite the cipher that suggests.
A perfect blonde from wealth, O feels unloved by her family. So she has made a new one, on a palisade overlooking the Pacific, with pot vendors named Ben and Chon. It's very nice. As with Stone’s critiques of Wall Street corruption that turn into celebrations of what it can buy, “Savages” at times looks like money porn.
Of course, the boys are not itinerant tinkers, but developers and wholesalers of world’s best dope. That’s what we are told, anyway, and someone sure believes it. As Chon and O await Ben’s return from a do-gooding mission in what used to be called the Third World, they receive an unsettling e-mail from a nearby cartel. Other competitors have lost their heads.
Conveniently, Ben (Aaron Johnson) majored in business and botany, and hooked up with computer wizards and money launderers. Shaggy and soulful, Johnson goes for a sort of Young Springsteen vibe. Yes, he’s cashing in, but he wants to help out as well.
Equally conveniently, Chon did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He came back with the world’s best buds, as well as all-American buddies who can be very dangerous persons. As played by Taylor Kitsch, Chon is a blank slate except for stubble and tats.
But the other side brings more firepower to the table. As suave lawyer Alex, last year’s best actor nominee Demián Bichir is merely the well-turned-out advance man for the Mexican group that wants to absorb Ben and Chon’s business.
Nuts and bolts, or hatchets and pistols, that’s the department of the earthier Lado, brought to life by Benicio Del Toro as man whose menace only increases when his eyes twinkle. But even Lado must yield when Elena makes up her mind.
The matriarch of the cartel becomes a force of nature in the form of Salma Hayek. She has inherited her position, but only because her husband and twin sons were killed. Elena does not intend to lose any more of her family nor a fingernail of her power. When Ben and Chon decline her initial offer — one politely, one less so — they quickly learn how vulnerable they are.
But there’s a loose cannon rolling through all these lives. John Travolta is the DEA agent who serves as enabler for both business groups. Aging, hairline challenged, with a wife dying of cancer, Travolta’s Dennis is a wild and crazy guy turned shrewd business consultant. He has the best feel for the industry of any of the players, even if that means rolling with the occasional stabbing or death threat.