Give this to Oliver Stone: Even when he makes a mess, he makes an entertaining mess. “Savages” is a bloody, drugged-up stew that brings out all of Stone’s pulp energy, and while it’s not one of his best pictures, it is highly watchable.
Well, maybe except for the opening 10 minutes, a disaster of exposition that introduces us to the threesome that occupy the center of the movie. And when we say “threesome,” the term is not used casually; this trio gets very cozy with each other.
Old buddies and business partners Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) live in Laguna Beach. They are opposites: Chon is an Iraq War vet with a hair-trigger temper; Ben is a Buddhist-inflected peacenik.
They have two things in common. They’re partners in a million-dollar pot-growing business, and they both love O (Blake Lively). O’s stilted narration carries us into this patchy opening section, and the movie almost dies before the plot kicks in.
But the plot, adapted from Don Winslow’s novel, is a doozy. Chon and Ben mess with some Mexican drug cartel heavyweights, which is not something a couple of guys from Laguna Beach should do. An extremely deadly, ultraviolent battle of wits is the result.
Stone serves this up with unseemly energy. He’s a tabloid journalist of a filmmaker, whacking you over the head with overheated dialogue and big, bloody close-ups.
He is genuinely interested in how systems work, from wartime platoons to presidential politics to Wall Street. And the machinations of the illegal drug trade provide some interest here, although Stone’s attention keeps getting waylaid by the violence of the cartel and the hippie love of his trio.
The three young actors are problematic. While Aaron Johnson (he played John Lennon in “Nowhere Boy”) looks like a movie star in the making, rocklike Taylor Kitsch continues his problematic 2012 (he’s coming off “John Carter” and “Battleship”). Blake Lively has shown a spark elsewhere, but she literally suffers through most of her role here.
Luckily, the large cast is full of actors getting frisky, as they sometimes do when they work with Stone. You’ve got John Travolta as a corrupt DEA agent, Salma Hayek as a menacing cartel boss, Emile Hirsch as a hacker genius, and Demian Bichir as one of Hayek’s flunkies.
Friskiest of all is Benicio Del Toro, who plays the enforcer of Hayek’s cartel.
Del Toro is so commanding yet so mischievous that he almost throws the movie out of balance — if it had any balance, which it doesn’t. His performance is comic and creepy at the same time, and he can steamroll other actors just by raising one of his prodigious eyebrows.
“Savages” is not boring, I’ll say that for it. Credibility is not its strong suit, especially as it hurtles toward a bizarre ending — or do I mean endings — but Stone still has some juice when it comes to building tension. Now if he could just clear his head a little, he might come up with a really great movie again.
“Savages” (2½ stars)
When Oliver Stone makes a mess, it’s usually entertaining — and this violent, drugged-up adaptation of Don Winslow’s novel is all that. Some Laguna Beach pot dealers cross the wrong Mexican cartel, and the resulting battle of wits is a bloody, overheated spectacle. It might not make a lot of sense, but it’s watchable in its tabloid, pulpy way. In the large cast, Benicio Del Toro steals the show.
Rated: R for violence, language, nudity.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Meridian, Oak Tree, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.