Savages: From Hashish to Ashes, Cannabis Flick Can’t Stay Lit

Pretty boys Johnson and Kitsch spark up the screen, but Stone's low-brown battleground burns down

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Kitsch, Lively and Johnson in Savages.

What I know about the internecine workings of Mexican drug cartels you could fill in an egg cup—and still have enough space left over for the egg. But this I know: It’s a subject and a subculture that has got to be more fascinating than anything in gonzo director Oliver Stone’s deadly, hateful, preposterous and cliché-riddled movie Savages. He even makes the violence look dull.

Based on one of those Don Winslow carnage epics that appeal to grown men who still read comic books, Savages boogies to the beat of an assault weapon, cutting back and forth between the cold-blooded drug lords in Tijuana and the stoner gringos of Southern California, fighting it out for billions in the Baja Peninsula. The convoluted plot, which would be difficult to decipher with the aid of a microscope, is as familiar as any one of a thousand cable network television series—and Mr. Stone’s dialogue is as wooden as a rocking chair, possibly because his script was co-written by the dubious Shane Salerno (Alien vs. Predator) and novelist Don Winslow, whose grasp of the way real people talk is as phony as reality TV. The American potheads, unconvincingly depicted as tattooed hunks with romantic notions of Butch and Sundance on reefer, are Chon (camera-ready Taylor Kitsch, who keeps stalling his PR-funneled elevator to pop stardom by pushing the down button) and Ben (Aaron Johnson, the British star of such monumental motion picture milestones as Kick-Ass). Best friends since high school, Chon is a combat veteran who worked as a Navy seal in Iraq, starting the business by smuggling cannabis seeds from Afghanistan, and Ben is a soulful Berkeley graduate who invests his share of lucrative profits from the weed trade in noble world causes. Together, in Laguna Beach, they share tattooed washboard abs and cuddle up in the same bed with a bottle blonde named O (Blake Lively). It’s a perfect soft-core porn arrangement (lots of nipples, but no real nudity) until their wacked out ménage a trois is rudely interrupted by greedy and villainous drug lords from  south of the border ruled by Goth queen Elena (Salma Hayek in a tossable wig of lacquered bangs, looking like a cross between Louise Brooks and Cleopatra) and her depraved henchman, the psychopath Lado (Benicio Del Toro, who has traveled down this homicidal highway before, in better films than this). The best smoke in the world, apparently, is not from Thailand, Jamaica or Saigon, but mass produced in Chon and Ben’s pot factory, a foundation with branches in Africa, Asia and West Hollywood. Elena and her ruthless gang want a piece of the boys’ 15 million satisfied customers by forcibly encouraging them to join the Mexican work force, but when they resist (opting to retire and—are you ready?—invest their illegal fortune in solar energy), she kidnaps O and threatens to cut off her fingers, one by one. In retaliation, the boys kidnap Elena’s beloved daughter and war erupts. Stirring the pozole is Dennis, a creep from the Drug Enforcement Agency who plays both sides against each other, rejoicing in the ensuing brutality and torture. Dennis is played with demented glee by John Travolta, who looks like a Pleistocene Era warthog.

They are all savages, and when Mr. Stone runs out of ideas about what to do with them, he borrows every crime-thriller cliché, from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction to Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, bathes the bloody decapitations and rapes in the glow of lush cinematography, then distracts the viewer with camera tricks, black-and-white conversions, cell-phone images, classical music and, finally, a maddening finale, narrated by O. Then the movie backs up like a VHS tape on rewind, and there’s an alternate cop-out ending, even more infuriating than the first.

Mr. Kitsch is pretty, despite the unnecessary battle scars on his face designed to illustrate character but signifying nothing more than the hours he spent in the makeup chair. Mr. Johnson’s changing moral compass, from pacifist to killing machine, is as contrived as Mr. Travolta’s epiphany from invulnerable monster to sympathetic family man. Ms. Hayek, as the Mother Goddam of the Mexican drug cartel, is the best thing in the movie. To be fair, the actors all work hard to keep the audience awake, but the sloppy direction and drugged-out script make Savages hard to rise above. Continuity and logic have never been Oliver Stone’s strengths, but this movie is barely credible. What makes drug lords hard to arrest is their unexceptional ordinariness. In real life, they all look like plumbers and accountants. The predators here are so beautiful and exotic and camera-ready that any law enforcement officer with half a brain would have no trouble spotting them a block away. Worse still, they’re boring. They blow off their victims’ kneecaps, and you don’t even notice. These are neither good people nor interesting savages, and they’re not worth caring about. Neither is the movie.

rreed@observer.com

SAVAGES

Running Time 130 minutes

Written by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow and Oliver Stone

Directed by Oliver Stone

Starring Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch and Blake Lively

1/4