Despite his concerted efforts to sabotage it in the last five minutes, “Savages” is Oliver Stone’s strongest work in years — a stylish, violent, hallucinatory thriller with both a mean streak and a devilish sense of humor. It’s not at all for the faint of heart. The heroes are pot dealers — pot entrepreneurs, really — and their interactions with a Mexican drug cartel that wants their business are as bloody as the headlines would have you believe. Heads get blown apart and eyeballs dangle. There are chainsaws. The operating assumption is that blowtorch hyper-realism is the only appropriate approach to this subject.
The film’s based on the well-regarded crime thriller by Don Winslow (who had a hand in the script along with Stone and Shane Salerno), and its central irony is that two young dudes who could have become, say, website millionaires decided instead to go into the marijuana industry. Ben (Aaron Johnson) is the brains, a Berkeley business/botany double major with an idealist streak; he plows his profits into Third World sanitation projects. Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is the muscle, back from Iraq and Afghanistan with bad scars and worse memories. Their product, with its 33 percent THC content, is popular enough to let them live the Laguna Beach dream.
And popular enough to attract a Baja group headed by Elena “La Reina” Sanchez (Salma Hayek), a chic Tijuana drug lord and noodgy mom. Ben and Chon get an offer from Elena’s lawyer (Demian Bichir); added incentive is provided by Lado (Benicio del Toro), a paunchy, grinning enforcer who goes about his bloody business accompanied by a landscaping crew.
If del Toro weren’t in “Savages,” it would be a much lesser film; the actor imbues his character with street smarts and sly cruelty, and he’s an old-school joy to watch. In a way, Lado is a comic variation on Javier Bardem’s killer in “No Country for Old Men,” and the best way to follow the story’s switchbacks and double-crosses is to keep your eye on the fox.
The other major character in “Savages” is O — California shorthand for Ophelia — who is Ben and Chon’s shared girlfriend and the film’s narrator, filling us in on the details in a dreamy tone that lets us know she’s not nearly as bright as she thinks. Another actress might have pressed harder on that unreliability, but Blake Lively makes her limitations work for her; she plays O without playing down to her. (Only late in the film, when Lively’s required to emote the heavy stuff, does she fall short.)
“Savages” skips from one set-piece to the next, each done with propulsive flair. Few can over-direct as engagingly as Stone; he gets cinematographer Dan Mindel to soak the visuals in rich, decadent hues, and he has three editors on hand, I guess, because there’s so much cutting to be done. The film rockets along beautifully, sustained not by its violence — that’s just a dealer’s cost of doing business — but Stone’s incredulity that Ben and Chon could ever think it would be otherwise.
There are moments of domesticity that leaven the movie with humor and soul. Johnson and Kitsch (who’s had a bad year, what with “John Carter” and “Battleship”) create a compelling pothead Mutt and Jeff, one gently naive, the other itching for battle. They both love O, but they love each other more, with an honesty that sidesteps the usual movie panic about such things. When O is kidnapped by the cartel, she becomes something of a surrogate child to Elena, whose own daughter (Sandra Echeverria) wants nothing to do with her. Even the corrupt DEA agent played by an antic John Travolta has a sorry situation at home.
Not that Stone wants us to feel bad for these people — they all deserve what’s coming to them. But the film successfully manages a double vision that lets us engage with the characters while standing at an amused, horrified distance. For all Ben and Chon’s efforts to rescue O, a few throwaway beach shots of willowy California blondes hint at how unremarkable she really is.
The director is so intent on de-romanticizing this story that he ends up shooting himself in the foot. “Savages” builds to a climax that is parched and bloody and nihilistic, more or less as in the book — and then backtracks for a second ending that is patently ridiculous, Stone thumbing his nose at us for bothering to care. But he’s not the director for such meta-stunts; they call for a scalpel, and Stone wields a hammer. When the screen briefly fades to white at a crucial point very near the end, you might want to consider getting out while the going — and the movie — is still good.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.