'Savages' returns director Stone to his former self

July 15, 2012

Oliver Stone has always been a director who walked the high wire when it comes to his movies. He makes daring, thoughtful films for adults with a commercial sheen.

He broke onto the scene in the mid-80s with "Platoon" and the oft-overlooked "Salvador," then created such distinctly daring films as "JFK," "The Doors," and "Natural Born Killers" in the following decade.

The 2000s haven't been as kind to the filmmaker, as he suffered a critical and commercial blow with "Alexander," from which he failed to recover in confidence, with muted, generic efforts such as "World Trade Center," "W." and the ill-conceived sequel "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." It seemed his serrated edge as a filmmaker had dulled.

Stone is roaring back to form with "Savages," which drips with his style in every frame, minus the overt politicized nature that marked much of his earlier filmography. This is Stone's grindhouse feature, and it would make a great double bill with his criminally forgotten "U-Turn."

Based on a novel by Don Winslow (who also served as a screenwriter here), "Savages" lives up to its title with a grimy little story of a couple of California pot dealers who cross the wrong people south of the border, endangering the life of their mutual girlfriend.

Chon (played by Taylor Kitsch, still struggling after the one-two punch of failure of this summer's "John Carter" and "Battleship") and Ben (played by Aaron Johnson) are high school friends who couldn't be more diametrically opposed. To paraphrase the film, Ben is a man trying to change the world and Chon is a man who has been changed by it.

Braniac Ben used his college degrees of botany and business to create a heavy strain of much-desired weed. He wants to use his fortune to alleviate global pain and suffering, kind of like a philanthropic pusher. Chon is a former Navy SEAL who is the enforcer, making sure their debts are collected and scores are settled.

The line between their yin and yang is Ophelia (played by Blake Lively), a flirty beach babe who doesn't so much live life as she experiences it. She becomes the bargaining chip of a particularly nasty Mexican drug cartel looking to get a hit off the duo’s business bong.

The cartel is led by Elena (played by Salma Hayek, who must be made of wax, as she seems un-aged after all these years), who is not accustomed to rejection and does not take kindly to the young men's snub of her offer to join forces. She sends her top henchman, Lado (played by a deliciously evil Benicio Del Toro), to "negotiate," which leads to Ophelia's subsequent capture.

Circling around the periphery are a thoroughly corrupt DEA agent (played by a hammy John Travolta), and Ophelia's estranged daughter, who wants nothing to do with her mom's lifestyle.

Heavy on the bud, blood and bullets, "Savages" wallows in its world in a way that feels like a liberation for the director. It's not always successful, and will certainly not be for everyone, but it does return Stone to the brash, audacious approach he once demonstrated. He may be hindered by his empty-vessel leads (Kitsch and Johnson serve up little more than sets of well-tanned abs), but he energized Travolta in a slimy role as a spineless wreck, and provides Del Toro a chance to use his sleepy eyes to reflect pure malevolence.

"Savages" is too tonally off-balance to be considered one of Stone's best, but it does mark a battery recharge for the director to make the same mean, artful entertainment for adult audiences that doesn't feel like it has to pander to studio focus groups for a compromise. This is a Stone that has been turned.