By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Oliver Stone hasn't made a movie as bloody as Savages in years or one as pointless since forever. Even in Natural Born Killers, one of the most violent mainstream films ever, Stone chided American culture for its nauseating sense of celebrity and what constitutes entertainment.
Savages has no such lofty aspiration, only a machete to grind with an audience gradually deserting this once-important filmmaker. Stone went soft in recent years, taking it easier than anyone expected on George W. Bush, revisiting Wall Street and honoring 9/11 heroes, hardly a controversial topic. The antiestablishment lion lost some teeth, and some admirers with them.
Stone won't win back many, if any, with Savages, an amoral mosaic of carnage and carnality, inhabited by SoCal marijuana growers, a DEA agent playing both sides, and a Mexican cartel specializing in decapitations. Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are underground famous for developing a highly potent strain of marijuana, making millions on the street, and the cartel is muscling in.
Ben is the quiet one, a Buddhist at heart who wouldn't mind chucking the marijuana business to focus upon saving the world. Chon is described as a "Baddhist," a war veteran playing very rough when Ben's tactful dealings with clients aren't good enough. They share a beachfront mansion with O, short for Ophelia (Blake Lively), a sexual free spirit sharing them and their back story in a druggy voiceover.
The Tijuana-based cartel is led by Elena, played by Salma Hayek with a Cleopatra wig and Medea temperament (the tragic Greek, not Tyler Perry). Elena runs her empire with Skype, spies and a murderous lieutenant named Lado (over-the-top Benicio Del Toro), who kidnaps O to force Ben and Chong into a marijuana merger. Savages becomes a bloody trail of double-crosses and revenge, some including John Travolta's fun performance as Dennis the DEA agent.
What emerges is a bleak, bizarre blend of Pineapple Express (without the jokes) and Traffic (one segment, at least). Stone dotes on the unsavory or titillating aspects of Savages in humorless, unsettling fashion, inserting alternate film stocks occasionally to remind us who's directing.
Let's agree that Stone has every right to doff his crusader cape and make a movie simply as pulp entertainment. Savages isn't entertaining, unless beheadings, gaping bullet wounds and eyeball-ripping torture by bullwhip — often scored with portentous classical music — is your cup of tea.
The bloodshed doesn't match the screenplay's massacre of Don Winslow's novel; apparently Stone didn't grasp the author's easy-money satire and character depth, only the visceral shocks. Oliver Stone famously griped about movies creating heroes from natural born killers. Now he has made one.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.