2 out of 4 stars
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively and Salma Hayek.
Who’s the worse criminal: the drug lord who endorses multiple decapitations just to send a message, or the squeaky clean grower who goes bad trying to take back what’s his?
In the movie “Savages,” it’s pretty much a dead heat.
In Laguna Beach, Calif., life is all about sun, fun and lots and lots of good weed, and that’s the philosophy that has helped build a small empire for young marijuana entrepreneurs Ben and Chon (Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch).
With business acumen and a green thumb, easygoing Ben has grown a potent product and a widespread network to distribute it, while former Navy Seal Chon handles any occasional unpleasantness with people in the industry.
It’s a setup that functions perfectly for the two best friends, who share the profits, a house overlooking the ocean and even the same girl, Ophelia (Blake Lively) — she goes by O — who feels a sense of utter happiness and completeness with their arrangement.
But, Ben and Chon’s methods for growing and selling the ultimate crop may work too well, as a Mexican drug cartel approaches them with a not-so-friendly proposal to partner. Not eager to get involved with notorious folks from south of the border, the pair rejects the offer and plans to skip town for a while with O.
However, the head (Salma Hayek) of the cartel and her enforcer (Benicio Del Toro) are already several steps ahead of them, kidnapping O and holding her hostage to show they will not take no for an answer.
Working frantically to meet their demands, Ben and Chon come to the conclusion that the only way they can fight back and save the woman they both love is with tactics all their own.
Talk about yin and yang — it’s hard to conceive how two totally different personalities could be friends, let alone splitting everything else they do.
Kitsch — who’s starting to look like box office poison after this year’s “John Carter” and “Battleship” — goes dark, but not too dark, for tough guy Chon, whose knee-jerk reaction to every situation is to pull a gun. He never gives off the vibe of the veteran who’s seen the atrocities of war and can’t be intimidated, more like that of the guy who doesn’t have the sense to back down when it comes to a fight he can’t win.
Johnson is more at ease playing Ben, quick to promote the health benefits of pot and turning his cash around to aid third-world countries. How quickly the nurturing botanist and humanitarian feels his soul corrode into the kind of dealer he’s always sworn to never be by making serious threats against his inside man (John Travolta) with the DEA, manipulating his enemies’ alliances and even going so far as to take a life.
At least it’s all in the name of love, right?
Lively is a bit of an enigma as O, who hates her given name because of the association with the suicidal lady from “Hamlet,” yet doesn’t refrain from giving herself entirely in the same fashion to the man she loves.
The beach babe is more than just a bargaining chip in this gang war, but she’s hard to take seriously written as someone who whines about having to eat pizza instead of salad while in captivity.
While del Toro is predictably unnerving as her cold-blooded jailer, Lado, Hayek is perhaps even more threatening as his employer, Elena, a kingpin — Queenpin? — like no other.
While she may have men executed in the blink of an eye and play her gender to her advantage masterfully, it’s when she starts to take an interest in O that’s really nerve-wracking.
Maybe it’s because of her estrangement from her own daughter (Sandra Echeverria), maybe she wants to screw with her mind, who knows?
When you factor in feelings to this tale of greed and violence, it takes a whole new turn, and with O’s voiceovers, it’s confusing to know just what we’re supposed to think about Ben and Chon as they become more and more vicious in turning the tables.
Funny how they consider their adversaries to be savages because of their ruthlessness, while Lado and Elena say the same thing about them regarding their habit of having a mutual girlfriend.
Maybe we’re supposed to be shocked by the three-way relationship, but isn’t there more important stuff happening?
The direction by Oliver Stone has some good brutality, but it’s nothing like the bloodshed we’ve seen from him in “Platoon” and “Natural Born Killers.” Where he crossed the line of how much carnage was too much with movies like this, here he strolls right up to said line, shuffles from side to side, then takes a big leap backward.
What’s more, his screenplay, co-adapted with Don Winslow — who wrote the original novel — and Shane Salerno, turns a reasonably suspenseful narrative into a bust with a deus ex machina conclusion that’s about as much of a disappointment as finding too many seeds in your dime bag.
It’s safe to say Stone has lost his edge with “Savages.”
Following the all-too-safe social commentaries of “W.” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” this ultimately banal “thriller” is certainly not worthy of the man who penned “Scarface.”
Then again, maybe it’s just the drug of choice. After all, a film about weed is almost guaranteed to be more laidback than one about cocaine.