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Movie review: 'Savages' a bruising, confusing drug tale

Published July 6, 2012 12:02 pm

Review • Oliver Stone's agitated direction can't cover plot holes.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The narrator of the drug-dealer drama "Savages," the sun-kissed California girl O (played by Blake Lively), begins by telling us, "Just because I'm telling this story doesn't mean I'm alive at the end of it. … It's that kind of story."

It's also the kind of story whose tellers — novelist Don Winslow, screenwriter Shane Salerno and director Oliver Stone (who all collaborated on the script) — are prone to jerk the characters, and the audience, around in phony efforts to look hip and edgy.

O, short for Ophelia, is the fulcrum of a temporarily stable love triangle.

O shares her bed with two men, best friends from high school, who have a lucrative business cultivating the best marijuana in the western United States.

The men are opposites in personality: Ben (Aaron Johnson, from "Kick-Ass") is a Buddhist idealist who uses his drug money to help villagers in undeveloped countries, while Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan haunted by the killing he saw and committed on duty.

Their boutique pot-growing operation attracts the attention of a Mexican drug cartel, which wants Ben and Chon to teach the cartel's suppliers how to grow better weed. When Ben and Chon decline, the cartel's ruthless boss, Elena (Salma Hayek), gets mean — ordering her muscle, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), to kidnap O as leverage. Ben and Chon vow to get O back safely, prompting a rift between the friends as the warrior Chon tells the pacifist Ben that he may have to kill to keep O alive.

The story also brings in other characters from Winslow's novel, most dynamically a corrupt DEA agent who is playing both sides against the middle. This DEA agent is played by John Travolta, whose mere presence speaks to Stone's efforts to copy Quentin Tarantino and Stone's utter failure to revive the propulsive force he brought to his nasty Tarantino-scripted 1994 cult classic "Natural Born Killers."

The script, based on Winslow's novel, pivots unsteadily from the convoluted to the unintentionally comic — with flashes of cruel brutality that don't rile up viewers as much as keep them from nodding off. And for all of Stone's agitated visual style, there's a lot of dead space in the narrative on the way to an aggravating ending that smacks of studio compromise.

As for the performances, neither Johnson nor Kitsch rises above his archetype, the characters never getting below the surface (where their personality-defining tattoos are).

The only character who resonates is Lively's O, the blissed-out object of desire and revenge, and the only character who doesn't live down to the film's title.

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'Savages'

Pot growers get in over their head with a Mexican drug cartel in this overwrought crime drama.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opens today.

Rating • R for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout

Running time • 130 minutes.