With Savages, director Oliver Stone sets aside the highfalutin’ airs of his last few pictures ( Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, W, World Trade Center) and cuts loose with his idea of a fun summer movie — a lurid, fast-paced thriller about two California pot farmers whose mutual girlfriend is kidnapped by a rival Mexican cartel. This is the Stone of Natural Born Killers and U Turn and Any Given Sunday, a director whose flair for absurdist excess and merciless satire can turn off viewers of milder sensibilities.
But Savages is something those other movies were not: Aggressively, defiantly stupid. Based on Don Winslow’s well-regarded page-turner (he also co-wrote the script), the movie has a propulsive energy that suits Stone well as he recounts exactly how Chon (Taylor Kitsch), an ex-Navy SEAL and veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, and Ben (Aaron Johnson), a college grad who majored in business and botany, built a marijuana empire that turned them into millionaires. Using surreal visuals and montage, Stone lays in the details needed to make you buy the movie’s central premise — that these two ordinary guys, with no connection to organized crime and no experience in the drug trade, became happy-go-lucky beachfront kingpins.
Those early scenes also introduce one of Savages’ most unlikely conceits: The lovely, bird-brained Ophelia (Blake Lively), who prefers to go by “O” and lives in carnal communion with the two guys, letting them take turns with her in the sack, and sometimes just sharing her bed with both of them at the same time. Even for an Oliver Stone movie, the scenario is an awful lot to swallow: What kind of woman would ever agree to this, and what two heterosexual men, no matter how close, would be comfortable with this arrangement? But you go with it, at least initially, because the entire plot hinges on their harmonious three-way union, a bromance with a woman thrown in for sexual release.
So when Ophelia is kidnapped by Elena (Salma Hayek), a Mexican drug lord who wants to force the gringos to share their profits, the guys resort to desperate measures to get her back. How else will they have sex? The title of Savages is meant as a bitter joke: Everyone in the movie, from Elena’s murderous goons (led by Benicio del Toro) to a crooked DEA agent (John Travolta) to the likable heroes, will commit extreme acts in order to get what they want. The war on drugs turns everyone into animals. That’s the only political statement Stone is out to make here, other than smoking pot is not necessarily a bad thing.
The rest of Savages is supposed to be pure, if brutal, entertainment, pulp fiction with an unusually graphic punch. Stone’s reliance on practical effects (real blood squibs, actual fireballs instead of CGI) is refreshing in an increasingly sterile action-film landscape, and there are a couple of expertly executed set pieces, such as an armored raid by Chon and Ben on a rival’s camp, or Ophelia’s suspenseful shopping spree at a mall, that prove the director remains in full control of his prodigious technical gifts. This is a grand-looking movie (the cinematographer is Daniel Mindel, who also shot Star Trek and John Carter) and the editing is precise. Stone takes moments many other directors might ignore — such as a potential speeding ticket that threatens to erupt into violence — and expands them into big, memorable beats.