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Movie Review: 'Savages'

Oliver Stone calmly guides wild story of drugs and over-the-top violence

Director: Oliver Stone
Rating R. Running Time: ‎2hr 7min
Stars: Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro

En español | Oliver Stone's left-leaning political views may reveal themselves somewhere in his two-hour-plus drug war splatterfest, Savages, but if they do, they are well and thoroughly shouted down by the film's gleeful wallow in over-the-top gunplay, knifeplay, chainsawplay and kinky sexplay.

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As a story, Savages is based on Don Winslow's novel about two Laguna, Calif., pot dealers who get mixed up with a Mexican drug cartel that is grotesquely dysfunctional, even by drug cartel standards. As a movie, Savages finds inspiration from such disparate sources as Brian DaPalma's Scarface, Steven Soderbergh's Traffic and Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim.

Yet the movie is, from its opening display of jaw-dropping carnage to some final gauzy shots on an idyllic beach, firmly under Stone's control. The director asserts his vision in a way he has not since, perhaps, his 1999 football masterpiece, Any Given Sunday.

Chon and Ben (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson) are a couple of guys who share a paid-for-in-cash beachfront mansion with their mutual squeeze (Blake Lively), whose name is Ophelia but who goes by the name of "O." Through wonders of modern science, the two guys produce what is reputed to be the best weed in the civilized world.

From left: Salma Hayek and Blake Lively star in Savages

Courtesy Universal Pictures

Salma Hayek and Blake Lively star in 'Savages'

This draws the interest of a band of truly loathsome characters from south of the border — most notably a Baja queenpin (Salma Hayek, sporting a bizarre Cleopatra-type wig) and her bloodthirsty henchman (Benicio Del Toro, who seems to seethe danger with every breath). They present the boys with the proverbial offer they cannot refuse: Full partnership, or else they can say hello to the business end of a buzz saw.

How the drug ring tries to force the issue, and how the guys try to extricate themselves, is the whole fun of the enterprise. Some characters we like end up dead, others we despise walk away. And the film's whiplash-inducing finale even tries to have it both ways. But Stone's sure hand is always on the tiller. Even when events are spinning wildly out of control, the veteran director allows us a sure sense of where we are and what's going on — a lesson to be well heeded by many younger directors, who thrive on whirling, disorienting action sequences that leave viewers feeling like they've just had a long day on the Tilt-A-Whirl.

Best of all is John Travolta as a DEA cop who somehow manages to straddle both sides of three or four fences as he balances allegiances to multiple drug gangs, his family and, weirdly enough, his country. Say what you want about J.T., he remains unquestionably one of the most appealing screen presences of all time — especially now as he slouches through middle age, laugh lines deeper than ever, eyes still glistening and now seemingly unashamed of his handsomely receding hairline.

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