BY DAYNA PAPALEO
(R), directed by Oliver Stone
“There’s something wrong with your love story, baby,” the drug queenpin purrs to her pretty blonde captive over an alfresco dinner of lamb chops and menace, and we’re inclined to agree. The involuntary guest, Ophelia (Blake Lively), has already brought us up to speed on her polyamorous relationship with two drug-dealing best friends in the tedious, languid voiceover of a young woman not nearly as worldly as she thinks she is. Regrettably, Oliver Stone’s “Savages,” a violent yet oddly uninvolving Southwestern noir from the man who brought us 1994’s “Natural Born Killers” and 1997’s fascinating “U Turn,” hangs on whether this dull troika can draw us into their rarified world of high-volume marijuana selling, stunning beachfront property, and the occasional ménage à trois.
“Savages” stars Taylor Kitsch (“Battleship”) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Kick-Ass”) as Chon and Ben, entrepreneurs and buddies who have built up a profitable enterprise thanks to botany major Ben’s expert handling of some weed seeds that ex-Navy SEAL Chon “imported” following a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Ben is the thoughtful brains, while the steely Chon provides the muscle. Or: Buddhist and “baddist,” according to Ophelia, who dreamily claims to be their shared “home.” (No response from Ben and Chon, who clearly enjoy the sex.) Long story less long, Ben and Chon’s quality pot attracts the attention of a powerful cartel south of the border, who decides to strong-arm our reluctant (anti-) heroes into doing business with them by snatching their girlfriend.
Bad for them, good for us, since it’s the Mexican contingent that provides “Savages” with its spark. Salma Hayek camps it up in a Cleopatra wig as Elena, the cartel’s no-nonsense matriarch, who takes a moderately motherly interest in Ophelia when her own college-age daughter rejects her. And Academy Award winner Benicio Del Toro gnaws all the scenery as the scuzzy Lado, Elena’s cold-blooded enforcer, albeit one with a shaky sense of loyalty. Shockingly, though, it might be John Travolta who walks off with this film as Dennis, a motormouthed DEA agent up to his wrists in various pies. It’s a sly performance, and one I was ready to dismiss as awful and screechy after his first scene. Here’s hoping Travolta’s future consists of juicy character-actor roles.
I don’t need to outline what happens; it’s all close calls, double-crosses, reckonings, blah blah blah. If only our protagonists were either interesting or sympathetic, because the film feels kind of empty. (Presumably there’s enlightening backstory from the source material, a novel by Don Winslow, that didn’t make the cut.) But the defiantly restraint-free Stone, who co-wrote the unsubtle script with Winslow and Shane Salerno, throws everything he has at the screen: changing film stocks, real explosions, and characteristically brutal violence. (That is, in fact, an eyeball dangling from recent Oscar nominee Demián Bichir’s socket.) So yeah, while it’s good to have popcorn Stone back after more topical misfires like 2008’s “W.” and last year’s paycheck “Wall Street” sequel, let’s hold out for vintage Stone.