Wild out west

True crime, corruption and drug cartels on the fields of California’s pot wars

Steppin’ into the drug ring.

Steppin’ into the drug ring.

Starring Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta. Directed by Oliver Stone. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Savages is the new Oliver Stone picture, but don’t let that stop you from seeing that, for the most part, it’s simply a brusque, atmospheric, and very lively crime flick.

The story, drawn from the novel by Don Winslow, has a pair of enterprising beach-boy stoners getting entangled in violent conflict with a Mexican drug cartel.

Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are pot-growing tycoons whose imported-from-Afghanistan strain of high-grade marijuana draws some very hostile interest from the competition just below the California-Mexico border.

The menacing attention comes chiefly from Elena (Salma Hayek), a cartel matriarch headquartered in Tijuana, and Lado (Benicio Del Toro), the maliciously enterprising enforcer ostensibly working on her behalf. And the tension is complicated further through the involvement of a double-dealing DEA agent named Dennis (John Travolta).

But there’s also Ophelia (Blake Lively), known simply as “O,” who is the beloved of both Ben and Chon. The shining centerpiece in these golden boys’ ménage à trois, she is fated to become a funky damsel in distress. But as the voice-over narrator at both the start and the convoluted finish, she is also a kind of muse, not only to her boyfriends, but to the movie itself.

The script (co-authored by Shane Salerno, Winslow and Stone) has “O” thinking of the trio’s escapades as a contemporary version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It wouldn’t be in character for any of them to notice that this might also be a So-Cal noir version of the French New Wave classic Jules and Jim, but both notions reflect the threesome’s blissed-out semi-delusional romanticism.

As such, the story provides an attractive stage for Stone’s own romanticism, which is mostly of the gonzo sort. Chon, a Navy SEAL vet with Afghanistan experience, brings the armed-and-dangerous side of Stone’s outlook into play. And the exultant mishmash of messy passions among these three and their antagonists plays out in crime-story action that is both frenzied and laid-back.

The younger members of the cast do nicely serviceable work in roles that are mostly generic types. The older actors’ roles are no less generic, but Hayek and Del Toro in particular manage to convey impressions of depth, however fleeting.

The film’s reductive character psychology, more or less mandated by some semi-incomprehensible cartwheels of the plot, is summed up in the title. The undercurrents of social psychology, however, prove more resonant—Afghanistan, Mexico, commando raids, the war on drugs, warlords and drug lords, power and profit, etc.