'Savages' review: Drugs good, people bad?

**1/2 (out of four)

In the first few minutes of “Savages,” Blake Lively’s character, O, says via superfluous voiceover, “Dope’s supposed to be bad, but in a bad, bad world, it’s good.” In reference to military vet Chon’s (Taylor Kitsch) PTSD-driven sexual behavior, O notes, “I have orgasms; he has wargasms.”

A herd of elephants couldn’t lift a movie from depths this low, yet juicy performances from Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro nearly do it. They play a drug lord and her chief henchman, respectively, and their sinister behavior and rare humanity (or lack thereof) electrify a movie that often settles for comfortable, drawn-out genre familiarity.

Adapting Don Winslow’s novel, director/co-writer Oliver Stone (“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” “World Trade Center”) ignores that “Savages” hardly represents the first movie about the drug trade, presenting the business and the risks involved as if no one understands that big money brings big power and, often, big guns. Well, Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon’s best friend, weed-growing business partner and the third corner of a harmonious love triangle with O, does balk at the violence that escalates after Elena (Hayek) and her operatives kidnap O. It takes time for Ben to succumb to the viciousness of the lifestyle, and Johnson nicely guides the character from confidently naïve to vengeful and morally compromised. Kitsch, on the other hand, in need of a winner after the massive failure “John Carter” and underrated but unsuccessful “Battleship,” suffers from a character without an arc—and lines like “You don’t change the world; it changes you.”

Too bad the movie can’t decide if it’s a horrifying cautionary tale or an ironic, comedic nod to the drug enforcement agents (John Travolta), techno whiz-kids (Emile Hirsch) and legal minds (recent Oscar nominee Demian Bichir of “A Better Life”) who become wrapped up in a deadly game over an illegal form of entertainment or pain prevention. Stone doesn’t suggest a simpler method but does imply that the war on drugs (at least when talking about marijuana) may incite more deceitful, dangerous behavior than it prevents.

That’s a large statement, and “Savages” thrives on the continually shifting balance of power between people playing every angle to skirt the law and impending disaster. The movie also fails to bridge awkward tonal shifts between Tijuana beheadings and the sexy story of two pals, their gorgeous shared girlfriend and the seemingly universal effort to grow the best weed in the world. But Chicago cops with the newfound freedom to issue weed-related tickets—yes, I realize that doesn’t pertain to drug-related kidnappings and people subject to having their fingers cut off—may be glad regardless to be one additional step removed from the mayhem.

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mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais

 

 

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