Both Savages’ central pot-growing threesome and the Mexican drug cartel they tangle with get labeled with the titular insult of Oliver Stone’s new film, and oh, do they earn it. Kidnapping, decapitations, rape, torture—marijuana may be on the verge of legality in California, but as a business, it justifies some nasty means to its ends. Savages is a bright, messy smear of a movie adapted from Don Winslow’s novel of the same name, one that’s violent, sultry, and entertainingly sleazy while falling short of the satirical edge the material necessitates. Like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and W., Savages feels like Stone softballing something he should be skewering—in this case, SoCal entitlement and faux-progressive hypocrisy.
Fortunately for Savages, the aesthetic attributes of its cast, along with some scene-stealing performances from the south-of-the-border side of its drug feud, give the film enough appeal to carry it through a rambling runtime. Blake Lively plays O, née Ophelia, a mall-loving Orange County beach bunny who narrates the film in a dazed voiceover. She’s in an unconventional but sincere relationship with both Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), best friends who run a high-end cannabis business. (The guys don’t fool around, though one observer suggests the only way this arrangement could work is if they loved each other more than their mutual girlfriend.) When they turn down a partnership proposal from a cartel run by Elena (Salma Hayek), she has Lively kidnapped to demonstrate it wasn’t intended to be optional. Soon Kitsch’s dead-eyed former soldier has convinced Johnson’s hippie Buddhist that there’s a right time for force (and the occasional immolation).
Johnson, Kitsch, and Lively compare themselves to Butch, Sundance, and Etta, but they’re at most a diet version, vacant but pretty. (Stone shoots Lively’s windblown tresses like they’re a special effect.) Hayek, though, is ferocious as a ruthless crime lord turned metaphor for first-generation self-loathing, and Benicio Del Toro, as her henchman Lado, is magnetic as he slides from amusing to frightening. He and a surprisingly solid John Travolta, playing a corrupt D.E.A. agent, are the only two figures with the luxury of approaching the escalating conflict with a sense of humor. It’s something the film itself could use more of, though there are flashes—like Lively demanding from her cartel captors a “salad every once in a while”—that offer a promise of what could have been, and indicate the double-take ending should have felt more stinging than cop-out.