Don Winslow’s 2010 novel “Savages” was a kaleidoscopic encapsulation of the war on drugs that read like a movie pitch: an unabashedly pulpy, blood-soaked, smoke-filled, gonzo-inflected and extremely sultry look at every facet of the drug trade from the perspective of its participants. Unsurprisingly, erstwhile chronicler of countercultural excess Oliver Stone chose to adapt Winslow’s novel and the result is a fabulously adrenaline-charged work that’s too messy to represent a comeback for Stone but certainly marks a return to form.
Taking a screenwriting credit alongside Winslow and Shane Salerno, Stone tackles this sun-soaked California tale of young marijuana growers tussling with the territorial Mexican cartel by borrowing the book’s breathless forward motion and wily tone. Winslow’s free-associative writing style assumed the voice of its uniformly criminal protagonists and at times even devolved into a screenplay itself. Too ambitious for its own good, Winslow’s eager style allows it to swing from page to page for the same reason.
Stone boils down the essence of this approach by laying out its various power players through the voiceover narration of Ophelia (Blake Lively), neé O, a freewheeling stoner who spends her days cavorting around with entrepreneurial weed peddlers Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch). The two men share a posh life with O that extends to the bedroom, but otherwise have little in common. Ben, the brains of the operation, is a hippie buddhist who applies his dough to charitable causes abroad, while menacing ex-Navy SEAL Chon uses his overseas training to provide the muscle for their operation.
In the novel, Winslow had the gall to blatantly compare their seemingly ill-fated threesome to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (as did Stephen King in a generous pull quote) and the movie makes the same brash connection. Needless to say, “Savages” trades the emotional depth of that earlier achievement for trashy fun. Stone’s uneven direction veers from near-amateurish genre antics to an enjoyable awareness of those same standards. Even when it doesn’t hold together, the plot barrels forward in fits of violence and increasingly high stakes.
The trio’s lifestyle hits a wall when the Baja Cartel, a powerful operation led by the feminine powerhouse dubbed “Elena the Queen” (Salma Hayek), demands a cut of Ben and Chon’s profits. When the boys turn up their noses, Elena sics her ferocious henchman Lobo (Benicio Del Toro) on their new enemy and orders him to kidnap O. With Ben and Chon’s shared girlfriend in captivity, they scramble to gather the dough necessary to spring her free.
The ensuing barrage of hold-ups, shootouts and further kidnappings unfold in underwhelming doses. “Savages” clicks better when it relegates the conflict down to a series of terse exchanges that illustrate the drug trade’s mutually assured destruction. Challenging the cartel, Ben and Chon face down a stalwart operation characterized by John Travolta’s corrupt DEA agent Dennis as the “Walgreens” to their grassroots effort. “Don’t fuck with Walgreens,” Dennis warns. Chon doesn’t take orders from anyone: “You want us to eat your shit and call it caviar,” he tells the Cartel, a line that comes back to haunt him.
After its first hour, “Savages” sags from its reliance on this grimy sensationalism. However, its shortcomings are largely rectified by an enthusiastic ensemble. Kitsch and Johnson handle their thin roles well enough, and Lively rises to the challenge of sending up O’s carefree materialism, but the movie predominantly belongs to its older supporting characters. Hayek’s scowling boss is balanced by Travolta’s whiny cop and Del Toro’s cartoon thug.
Unfortunately, they aren’t the stars of the show as much as the spectacle. Stone adopts a restless visual scheme for each scene that gives the impression of “Natural Born Killers: The Next Generation,” even using the occasional black-and-white footage in true “NBK” tradition. However, the eager stylistic flourishes can’t distract from the overall derivative nature of the material. Winslow’s storytelling relies on personality types already done to death on the likeminded satiric exposés of American drug trade seen on the television series “Weeds” and “Breaking Bad.” The existence of both shows, several years into their lifespans, indicate that this aggressively dark tale lacks a fresh edge.
Nevertheless, Stone manages to deliver the guilty pleasure shoot-’em-up that the material begs for, and while he can’t make the wild ride last, he does find a way to editorialize with it. The single greatest deviation from the source material is the movie’s ending, which turns away from the “Butch Cassidy” reference point in favor of something closer to “The Sting.” Stone eventually arrives at a crowdpleasing finale that’s at once troublesome and provocative. No matter how unsettling “Savages” gets, it retains the DNA of a fairy tale. That takeaway creates the perception of the war on drugs as a fantasy played out in the minds of its participants, and in that regard it represents Stone’s most radical political statement in years.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Universal releases “Savages” nationwide this Friday in the wake of an aggressive marketing campaign that should help it land a respectable performance on opening weekend, although it faces steady competition from “The Amazing Spider-Man” for now followed by “The Dark Knight Rises” later this month.