"It's that kind of a story where things got so out of control," says O, the narrator of"Savages."She's talking about the plot, but she might be talking about the filmmaking as well.
Adapted from the bestselling Don Winslow novel, "Savages" has a lot going for it, including a pip of a story, a propulsive narrative drive and the über-cool blacker-than-night attitude and language of author Winslow, who told one interviewer, "I don't know that I'd want to visit my brain except with a gun and a flashlight."
Initially, Oliver Stone is an asset as well (besides directing, he has co-written the screenplay with Shane Salerno and Winslow). As a filmmaker, he's often shown an affinity for ruthless people acting ruthlessly, and there's a pulp side to his directing personality that meshes well with this self-consciously amoral story of a drug-dealing ménage à trois facing off against a rapacious Mexican cartel. Leave the kids at home for this one. Please.
But Stone is also a director who has often felt that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, and his weakness for bloody excesses of all sorts undermines much of his good work. You might not think that a motion picture called "Savages" could be too violent, too savage, but you would be wrong.
Some of that material, of course, comes right from the book, like the opening sequence of a homemade video put together by the Baja Cartel, a group that makes up for in violence what it lacks in cinematic sophistication. The video shows what happens when the cartel's decapitation squad has finished "going all Henry VIII" on some unfortunate rivals.
That scene is intended for best friends Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), buddies since high school and Laguna Beach-based partners in a multimillion-dollar business that grows some of the best, most potent marijuana in the world — weed that sells for $6,000 a pound to people who consider themselves lucky to get it.
Filling us in on the details with lots of verbal style ("Laguna is where God parked himself on the seventh day") is O, short for Ophelia. Played by Blake Lively, O lets us know that Ben is a mellow botanist who is into renewable energy while Chon is a former Navy SEAL with a hair-trigger temper who came back from combat "with a lot of cash but no soul."
O also tells all about Ben and Chon's sexual lives, something she knows a great deal about because she shares a bed with both of them. "Together they make one complete man," she enthuses. "They have one thing in common: me."
Though no one's going to be winning any acting awards here, Kitsch ("Battleship"), Johnson (John Lennon in "Nowhere Boy") and Lively ("Gossip Girl," "The Town") make this threesome as convincing as it's going to be. The film's starry-eyed idealization of the relationship has to be at least borderline believable in order for the essential contrast with the cartel's cutthroat cynicism to be effective.
Impressed by the potency of Ben and Chon's weed, the Baja Cartel intends to swallow their business whole. "They are Wal-Mart," someone tells the boys, "and they want you for a specialty aisle."
Ben and Chon reject the cartel's offer, and the drug lords retaliate by kidnapping O, the only thing in the world that means anything to our heroes. The cartel refuses to let her go unless some very onerous demands are met. Do B&C have what it takes to confront these scary and dangerous people, and, if they do, what will going to war take out of them?
Much of the juiciest acting in "Savages" comes from performers playing the story's more morally compromised characters. Salma Hayek does her best Wicked Witch of the West imitation as La Reina Elena, head of the Baja Cartel, and Benicio Del Toro all but oozes evil as Lado, her enforcer. Best of all is John Travolta, who gets it just right as Dennis, a genially corrupt Drug Enforcement Administration agent.
Though it could be argued that the violence and torture these people bring with them is essential to this kind of story, there is a key difference between how the novel and the film treat the material. In the book, Winslow's style is so hip that the violence, though quite explicit, is coolly held at arm's length. Nothing is allowed to disturb the fabric of the writing.
Stone, on the other hand, has a counterproductive tendency to get infatuated with violent extremes for their own sake. His weakness for what the Motion Picture Assn. of America calls "strong, brutal and grisly violence" overpowers everything else: at those overdone moments, the tension in the scenario dissipates and you fall out of the movie.
The story of "Savages" is too strong to destroy, even with key elements of the novel's plot tampered with. But the hurt can be put on this material, and that's what has happened here.
MPAA rating: R, for strong, brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: In general releaseCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times