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War on Drugs 

Oliver Stone returns to his gritty self with Savages’ hard look at Mexican cartels

click to enlarge Benicio Del Toro: born to play a goon like this.
  • Benicio Del Toro: born to play a goon like this.
There’s so much that’s so right in Oliver Stone’s dizzying new crime thriller that its impediments stick out like speed bumps. You’ll know you’ve hit one when your vertiginous sense of WTF screeches to a manageable — and much duller — pace. I’ll give you a hint, too: The slowdown usually occurs when the film’s three young leads occupy the screen on their lonesome. Though they’re competent, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively and Aaron Johnson are hardly scintillating, and their performances pale in comparison to the spectacularly outrageous turns delivered by Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek and John Travolta. Plus, the young threesome and their love triangle never convincingly seduce the audience. The characters are besotted with one another, but that bewitchment translates feebly to the viewer. And since all the action hinges on the primacy of this threesome, it’s as though a foundation layer of the movie has fallen out. Or as Hayek’s Elena says in another context, “There’s something wrong with your love story, baby.”

Savages provides us with a glimpse into the Oliver Stone of yore — the director of lurid, visceral and menacing crime stories — a facet of the filmmaker we haven’t seen much of since Natural Born Killers and U-Turn. The film is based on Don Winslow’s bestseller, and Winslow co-wrote the screenplay with Stone and Shane Salerno. It’s the story of Chon (Kitsch) and Ben (Johnson), independent growers and sellers of the best marijuana around. Chon is an ex-Navy SEAL who brought back the seeds for the business from Afghanistan; Ben is the botanist who, in addition to growing pot with off-the-charts THC levels, is also a do-gooder who builds water wells in Africa and performs many other charitable deeds. O (Lively), short for her given name Ophelia, or maybe her orgasmic avatar, is the woman who loves them both and lives with them in hedonistic, copacetic bliss in a luxury home in Laguna Beach, Calif.

The Mexican drug wars follow their natural path north of the border in Savages when Chon and Ben’s operation becomes subject to takeover by a cartel helmed by Elena, a ruthless but not heartless leader in a Cleopatra wig, and her chief goon and henchman Lado (Del Toro), whose vicious depravity and loathsomeness are bottomless. O is kidnapped by Elena’s minions and held as a bargaining tool. Travolta complicates things as a crooked DEA official whose hairline is receding as rapidly as his morals. Stone and cinematographer Daniel Mindel make the entire experience seem hallucinatory with their mixture of film and video imagery, saturated colors that sometimes turn to black and white, rewinds and other optical tricks, as well as a conclusion that pulls the rug out from under the audience. It’s volatile, nasty, hypnotic, gory and irresistible. But then O opens her mouth to continue with her vacuous and omnisciently impossible voiceover narration, and the spell is broken. Then it’s just another day at Laguna Beach.

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