Welcome to the recession, boys," says John Travolta's DEA-double-agent profiteer in Oliver Stone's Savages, based on Don Winslow's novel. Savages is a movie of its moment, though both its good guys and bad guys (if there's really even a difference) are unquestionably the 1 percent of their industry — that is, the weed trade. The setting is the 100 miles surrounding the California-Mexico border circa right this minute (a subplot involves Mexican elections, which took place in real life on July 1), with Stone focusing on the human and fiscal politics of California's twin pot economies, one quasilegal and the other criminal — a split that the film suggests can last for only so long.
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California dudes Ben and Chon (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch) are dragged into a turf war with the expansion-minded Mexican cartel run by Salma Hayek's drug-war widow Elena and her brutally amoral deputy, Lado (Benicio Del Toro). The Mexicans regularly show their power by creating and disseminating videos documenting torture and beheadings. Eighty miles over the border, in Laguna Beach, Ben and Chon supply their ultrapotent, genetically engineered strains to legal medical dispensaries but make their real money illegally shipping out of state. The product and its profits fuel the boys' lifestyle of neohippie decadence, embodied by the business partners' enthusiastic bedroom sharing of poor little rich girl turned earth-mother floozy Ophelia (Blake Lively). Both sides consider the other to be "savages" — which we know because they say it aloud multiple times.
More than two hours long — and building to two endings — Savages is bloated with plot and exposition, much of which is related via the incessant voice-over of Ophelia, who goes by O. (as she tells us... via voice-over). "Just 'cus I'm telling you this story doesn't mean I'm alive at the end of it," she says at the beginning of the film, introducing the possibility of narrative innovation that the movie to come doesn't fulfill.
Savages, starring Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Benicio Del Toro, and Salma Hayek. Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow, and Oliver Stone. Rated R. 127 minutes.
The film's micro-time-capsule approach is interesting, but Stone, Winslow, and coscreenwriter Shane Salerno's indulgence in above-the-law fantasy and the only-in-Hollywood notion that love trumps business are more potent than any point they're trying to make about our real world. Of course, the law itself — represented by Travolta's fed, who works both sides to serve only himself and whose never-seen wife is said to be using reefer for the pain of her cancer — is both corrupt and hypocritical.
Soul is something Savages has in short supply, not least because Kitsch and Johnson register as blanks onscreen. In contrast, Hayek and Del Toro, both sporting apparently intentionally terrible wigs, give big, scenery-chewing performances and earn our interest and empathy even while committing heinous acts.