Savages provides us with a glimpse at the Oliver Stone of yore, the director of lurid, visceral and menacing crime stories. We haven't seen much of that since Natural Born Killers and U-Turn.
The film is based on Don Winslow's bestseller, and Winslow co-wrote the screenplay with Stone and Shane Salerno. It's the story of Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), independent growers and sellers of the best marijuana around. Chon is an ex-Navy SEAL who brought back the seeds for the business from Afghanistan; Ben is the botanist who, in addition to growing pot with off-the-charts THC levels, is also a do-gooder who builds water wells in Africa and performs many other charitable deeds. O (Blake Lively), short for Ophelia, is the woman who loves them both and lives with them in hedonistic bliss in a luxury home in Laguna Beach, Calif.
The Mexican drug wars follow their natural path north of the border when Chon and Ben's operation becomes subject to takeover by a cartel helmed by Elena (Salma Hayek), a ruthless leader in a Cleopatra wig, and her chief goon and henchman Lado (Benicio Del Toro), whose depravity and loathsomeness are bottomless. O is kidnapped by Elena's minions and held as a bargaining tool. John Travolta complicates things as a crooked DEA official whose hairline is receding as rapidly as his morals.
There's so much that's so right in Savages that its impediments stick out like speed bumps. You'll know you've hit one when your vertiginous sense of WTF screeches to a manageable - and much duller - pace.
The slowdown usually occurs when the film's three young leads occupy the screen on their lonesome. Though they're competent, Kitsch, Lively and Johnson are hardly scintillating, and their performances pale in comparison to the spectacularly outrageous turns by Del Toro, Hayek and Travolta.
Plus, the young threesome and their love triangle never convincingly seduce the audience. The characters are besotted with one another, but that doesn't really come across to the viewer. And since all the action depends on the primacy of this trio, it's as though a foundation layer of the movie has fallen out. Or as Elena says in another context, "There's something wrong with your love story, baby."
Stone and cinematographer Daniel Mindel make the entire experience seem hallucinatory with their mixture of film and video imagery, saturated colors that sometimes turn to black-and-white, rewinds and other optical tricks, as well as a conclusion that pulls the rug out from under the audience. It's volatile, nasty, hypnotic, gory and irresistible. But then O opens her mouth to continue with her vacuous voiceover narration, and the spell is broken. Then it's just another day at Laguna Beach.