At least until its tacked-on happy ending, Savages is a tightly wound, vastly entertaining pulp thriller — it's perhaps director Oliver Stone's strongest work since Nixon (1995).
Freed from the burden of having to say something "important" — a weight that deflated his 9/11 drama World Trade Center (2006) and prevented his underrated George Bush biopic W. (2008) from reaching potentially ecstatic heights — Stone gets back to what he does best: mixing brash showmanship with gleeful provocation.
Savages doesn't have the moral imagination and emotional reach of his greatest works, Born on the Fourth of July (1989), JFK (1991) and Natural Born Killers (1994) — but it's propelled by the same half-crazed energy and purposefulness. This director is never better than when he's rooting at our rawest societal nerves.
Based on Don Winslow's 2010 novel, the film harks back to those 1980s, Stone-scripted efforts like 8 Million Ways to Die and Scarface, movies about the sinister allure of hard drugs and big money.
In Laguna Beach, Calif., short-tempered war veteran Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and his do-gooder, Berkeley-grad best buddy Ben (Aaron Johnson) have become low-level drug kingpins, cultivating a higher-class brand of pot with seeds from Afghanistan. Chon and Ben live an idyllic life with the beautiful Ophelia (Blake Lively), O for short, whom they share as a girlfriend, mostly insulated from the seedier aspects of the drug trade.
The opening section of Savages moves with bullet speed, complete with rapid-fire edited flashbacks and a pair of fairly graphic sex scenes. Stone takes particular delight in the gym-toned, sun-bronzed bodies of his three leads; the movie — as its title suggests — is about how we're all savages at heart, motivated by sex, food and illicit stimulation, and willing to get brutally violent when our sanctity is threatened. When a powerful Mexican cartel contacts Chon and Ben, eager to become business partners, things turn very violent.
One of the smartest things about the screenplay adaptation (by Stone, Winslow and Shane Salerno) is that, even as it posits a fantasy scenario of wealthy white kids running up against Mexican cartels, it doesn't flinch from the realities of a war on drugs that's beset by corruption and unimaginable cruelty. The cartel is run by Elena (Salma Hayek), a purring diva in Tijuana not above ordering the beheadings of those who have crossed her. Her chief henchmen in the United States are Alex (Demián Bichir) and Lado (Benicio del Toro), who orchestrate the kidnapping of O, at which point Elena issues Ben and Chon an ultimatum: Join us, or her head gets cut off. Caught in the middle of all this is DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta), who's on the take from more than one source and who would be willing to sell anyone out to the next highest bidder.
A lesser filmmaker might have been content to set this enjoyably convoluted story in motion, and sit back and watch the sparks fly. Stone turns it into a fascinating story of generational divide and spiritual malaise in the early 21st century. Played nicely by Lively (Gossip Girl), Johnson (who portrayed John Lennon in Nowhere Boy), and especially Kitsch (John Carter, TV's Friday Night Lights), the three younger characters embody a distinct Gen-Y conundrum: They want to be able to live on their own terms without having to reckon with the brutalities of the modern world. The older characters, meanwhile, are all hustlers: They have kids they're trying to put through college, families they're trying to protect. Despite the millions of dollars at stake, they're just trudging along with the rest of us in the 99 percent.
For nearly two hours, Stone keeps a tight grip on the material, providing plenty of space for his ensemble cast to deftly chew the scenery: Del Toro mumbles and mutters and keeps petting his mustache, as if some tiny cat settled onto his face. Travolta keeps in perpetual motion, talking a mile a minute. Hayek, in a long Cleopatra wig and one gorgeous outfit after another, combines the imperiousness of Bette Davis circa All About Eve with the sort of exaggerated vulnerability you usually find only on telenovelas; in a word, she's inspired.
It's only in the final stretch that the movie stumbles, when Stone serves up one ending, then doubles back and gives us another. The first ending is right out of the novel, and had he cut himself off there, Stone might have given us one of the most powerful nihilistic visions of a world turned upside down since his own Natural Born Killers. Instead, he opts for an unconvincing, let's-tie-up-all-the-bows coda — a sop to the Hollywood bean counters and a betrayal of everything that comes before it.
Make no mistake, even with that botched finale, Savages is eminently worth seeing. Leave the theater five minutes before it ends, though, and you might think you've witnessed the best American movie of the year.