A couple of Laguna Beach stoners go up against the Mexican Baja Cartel when their girlfriend is kidnapped in “Savages,” which could have been Oliver Stone’s return to form — at least the over-the-top, bad-taste form of “Natural Born Killers.”
But “Savages,” based on crime writer Don Winslow’s viciously funny 2010 novel, merely continues Stone’s tepid streak.
Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are best friends who share a multimillion-dollar marijuana business and a girlfriend, O, short for Ophelia (Blake Lively).
Ben is a botanical genius who spends his millions improving living conditions in the Third World, while Chon, an ex-Navy SEAL hardened by the horrors of Iraq, is the cynical muscle of the operation. O calls them the Buddhist and the “Baddist”; when the boys refuse to cut the Mexicans in on their operation, the Buddhist is going to have to learn to be bad.
The Mexicans have their brains and their muscle as well: Alex (Demián Bichir), a dapper lawyer who makes the boys an offer they can’t refuse, and Lado (Benicio Del Toro), a thug who uses a landscaping business as cover. They work for drug queen Elena “La Reina” Sanchez (Salma Hayek), who is looking to solidify her position in a turf war headed over the border and has a daughter O’s age (Sandra Echeverría).
It sounds familiar and it is, but it didn’t have to be. Winslow’s novel, with its derision of consumerist decadence, critique of Western interventions overseas (in which neo-cons and Bono have a rough equivalence), “wise Latinas” struggling for respect, and postmodern playfulness (slipping in and out of screenplay mode) is anything but.
It’s also, to use O’s texting language, not just LOL but OMGYGHT (Oh My God You Gotta Hear This). But even O’s edge has been polished off. Whom would you rather watch, a damsel in distress forced to eat pizza and watch reality shows (the movie) or a spoiled brat ordering her kidnapper to get her a pizza and a TV so she won’t miss another episode of “The Bachelorette” (the book)? It’s significant that the young man who provides her these things — a fully realized character in the novel — doesn’t even have a name here.
It’s like “Birth of a Nation” with Mexicans: Del Toro, playing up every greasy stereotype this side of Speedy Gonzalez while sporting a poofy mullet, should be ashamed of himself. Hayek tries to talk tough while wearing one of Katy Perry’s old wigs; only Bichir, a deserving Oscar nominee for last year’s “A Better Life,” survives with his dignity — and his hair — relatively intact.
It’s left to the gringos to carry the movie, but the wattage emitted by Johnson (“Kick-Ass”), Kitsch and Lively is dim. They may be good-looking, but they aren’t movie stars — after “John Carter” and “Battleship,” it’s the third strike for “Friday Night Lights” star Kitsch — and Lively’s lethargic narration is particularly painful.
O thinks of herself as Etta Place to Ben’s and Chon’s Butch and Sundance, but the bromance is never credibly conveyed. (Going NC-17 in the depiction of the book’s ménage à trois would have helped, but the movie, with a typical loss of nerve, cuts away.) It’s left to John Travolta, as a DEA agent on the boys’ payroll, to give the film what little energy it has.
Winslow’s novel was written in consultation with co-screenwriter Shane Salerno and optioned before publication by Stone, so it’s a mystery why the movie came out so homogenized. But the greater mystery is what happened to Oliver Stone.
The old Oliver Stone would not have turned down the chance to show a poor schnook who has run afoul of the cartel being smacked around in a piñata. The old Oliver Stone would appreciate the irony that two generations of real-life criminals have grown up quoting the lines he wrote for Al Pacino in “Scarface.” The old Oliver Stone would have wallowed in the moral gray areas, critiqued the American Dream and made us feel guilty just for watching.
The new Oliver Stone? He’s not even one toke over the line.