Can a movie be utterly done in by a botched ending? Maybe.
The one Oliver Stone & Co. cooked up for his take on the drug trade, “Savages,” is dishonest and patronizing. But in a film that overtly references “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” it’s only natural for the filmmaker to be thinking of other Newman/Redford pictures and how they conclude.
Stone has always been a cinematic preacher, and in Don Winslow’s novel — sort of a “Blow” set in the west coast marijuana trade — he found a great vehicle to sermonize about the violence and greed that have taken over the once-benign Baby Boomer narcotic of choice.
Ben and Chon (Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch) are mellow Americans who are thriving as medical marijuana “independents,” with a shore side home in Laguna Beach and a shared girlfriend — “O” — played with a certain blitzed bliss by Blake Lively. She loves them both, sleeps with them both, and narrates the tale.
But only one of the lads, Ben (Johnson) the Buddhist with high-ideals, promoting Third World anti-poverty and sustainability projects, is mellow. Chon is an Iraq War vet, a man with physical and emotional scares.
“I have orgasms,” O says of sex with him. “He has wargasms.”
Their happy menage a trois is interrupted when the drug violence of Mexico storms into their lives. The Baja Cartel kills people with chainsaws and posts the video online. Lado (Benicio del Toro) is their enforcer. Alex (Demian Bichir) is their suit. The boss of bosses? Salma Hayek.
And they’ve made the boys an offer they cannot refuse.
Ben is all “Chill” and “Let them have the business.” But Chon takes a darker view.
“You let people think you’re weak, sooner or later you’re going to have to kill them.”
Thus begins the downward spiral from idealism and pot-entrepreneurship to carnage, kidnapping, torture and mayhem.
The characters are neatly sketched in — each with an obvious weakness. Their histories set the scene for heightened violence when the story’s pre-ordained action side takes over. Of course, the war vet has fellow vets who are friends. They’ll come in handy when the Mexican “Savages” take the one thing Ben and Chon won’t surrender — O.
Stone’s film flirts with racism even as it sermonizes that each side regards the other as “Savages.” The film’s sympathies, and ours, lie with the gringos. The Mexicans put on their cowboy boots, eat their all-meat and frijoles diets and treat life cheaply. One chilling ingredient should give every gringo pause — Mexican hit men posing as yard service workers, running their leaf blowers to cover the sounds of gunfire and torture.
The Americans? The worst you can say about them is that they’ve indulged in too much of their product, and are a bit slow on the uptake even as they’re sure they can “outsmart” the savages on the other side.
John Travolta is a corrupt DEA agent trying to keep his hand in the till while two armies have a knife fight over who gets to open it. Emile Hirsch shows up as a finance whiz. There’s also an expert hacker, a corrupt lawyer (Shea Whigham)and a lot of blood.
Stone blasts us with a blizzard of edits and filmmaking styles. We jump from jerky hand-held video to Web video to black and white footage to picturesque Chamber of Commerce travelogue shots.
And always, there’s the narrator, who assures us that she may not live to see the end of the tale, but she will be around to tell it.
Del Toro, the cinema’s leading Marlon Brando impersonator, is ferocious, sadistic, a real mustache twirler. But he lapses into Brando mumbling (he’s even starting to look like him with the set of his jaw) whenever the mood strikes him.
Hayek does well enough, suggesting a woman who must be tougher than any two men to stay on top of this dangerous trade. She wears her black wig like a combat helmet.
Neither Kitsch nor Johnson make much of an impression beyond the caricatures they play — violent, twitchy combat vet and mellow “Peace, love and understanding” stoner.
But Lively comes off as the film’s indictment of a generation — clueless, lazy, a “rebel” in her own mind, too in love with the loco weed to ever made a rational decision. The scenes leading up to O’s kidnapping have a wonderful tension, one underscored by the lack of urgency she and her lovers see in attempting their escape. Hey, chill. Have a hit. What’s the hurry?
Stone has spent his years in the wilderness, doing documentaries singing the praises of various South American leaders who don’t come off that well in the U.S. news media, finding something to say about the World Trade Center attack that isn’t political.
He’s back on his soap box with “Savages,” struggling to condemn a culture that his generation spawned, but that hasn’t worked out as blissfully as Timothy Leary et al might have wanted.
“Savages” is far from being one of his best films. But it compares well with his breakthrough film — “Salvador” — and shows that, at long last, he feels the need to get back to the altar, even if he hasn’t quite worked out this week’s sermon. Or how to end the damned thing.
MPAA Rating: R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout.
Cast: Blake Lively, Benicio del Toro, Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Salma HAeyk, John Travolta.
Credits: Directed by Oliver Stone, written by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow and Oliver Stone, based on the Don Winslow novel. A Universal release.
Running time: 2:10