Every film Oliver Stone has made in this century has been set in the world of finance, politics, or history. Now we come to "Savages," a vaguely sleazy pulp drama that addresses those topics obliquely but is mainly filled with the director's other favorite things: sex, drugs, and violence. In other words, it's vintage Stone, albeit without as much cocaine-fueled editing as in, say, "Natural Born Killers."
Based on Don Winslow's 2010 novel and set in Laguna Beach, Calif., "Savages" is the sun-baked story of two beach-bum friends, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who run a simple marijuana operation. Ben, the pacifist, double-majored in business and botany at Berkeley, and has the unkempt mane and wispy facial hair to prove it. Chon, an Iraq veteran with scars both physical and emotional, is rougher, meaner. While Ben's professionalism and easygoing nature prevent most of the violence typically associated with a drug business, Chon handles whatever problems do arise. They are a complementary pair.
Nobody knows this better than O (Blake Lively), their girlfriend. Yes, their. In her function as narrator, O -- her name is short for Ophelia -- informs us that Ben and Chon are both the love of her life, and that their yin-and-yang personalities comprise, for her, one complete partner. The fellas are cool with this arrangement. The three of them share a beach house and a lot else.
This idyllic three-sided relationship is disrupted, as are so many things, by a Mexican drug cartel. Headed by a vain, treacherous she-devil named Elena (Salma Hayek), the organization seeks greater control of the California pot market, and is particularly interested in the highly potent strain of weed that Ben and Chon (mostly Ben) have cultivated. Their business has benefited from the cooperation of a corrupt DEA agent, Dennis (John Travolta), who runs interference with the feds, but there's not much he can do to protect them from Tijuana's most notorious and decapitation-happy band of drug lords.
Other key players include Elena's top henchman, Lado (played by a leering, sinister Benicio Del Toro) and Alex, her well-dressed lieutenant (Demian Bichir). Alex is the one who meets directly with Ben and Chon to make an offer to absorb their business, with Elena safely tucked away in her Mexico palace, watching via webcam. But it is entirely Elena's decision to escalate matters when the bros decline her offer.
Stone, who co-wrote the screenplay with the novelist Winslow and Shane Salerno ("Aliens vs Predator: Requiem"), lets it go mostly unspoken that all of this violence and death would be erased if the War on Drugs were ended, but the point remains as subtext. Chon has been trained to kill by his government and uses tricks he learned from Iraqi insurgents to help fight Elena's cartel, but Stone doesn't dwell on these facts either. In most instances, where Stone has a choice between hammering a message home and telling an entertaining story, he goes with the latter, letting "Savages" function as nothing deeper than a gritty and glib damsel-in-distress action caper. In that respect, it's his most purely enjoyable, no-ax-to-grind movie since "Any Given Sunday." (Of course, "enjoyable" is a relative term. "Savages" has scenes of brutal violence that are difficult to watch. But you know what I mean.)
Among the leads, Johnson is more convincing as a hippie-dippy do-gooder than Kitsch is as a butch, battle-scarred killer, but the relationship between Ben and Chon feels authentic (or as authentic as a strictly heterosexual relationship between two men who have equal shares in the same girlfriend is liable to feel, anyway). Lively, despite her narrator duties, has little to do story-wise.
The real fun is in the less savory characters. Travolta is energetically nutty as the conniving DEA agent, with Del Toro just as magnetic as the cruel assassin (who literally twirls his mustache on at least one occasion). But my favorite performance is Salma Hayek as the villainous yet surprisingly nuanced cartel chieftain, a fiery, Spanglish-spouting vixen who lands just this side of campiness. It's hard to tell how seriously we're supposed to take any of this lurid guns-and-drugs ludicrousness; Johnson and Kitsch, especially, seem to be taking it more seriously than anyone else. To me, Hayek strikes the right balance between thinking too hard about the story's inherent nonsense and sitting back and enjoying the ride.