Oliver Stone's ultra-violent "Savages" is not to be confused with Tamara Jenkins' decorous, Buffalo-filmed 2007 film "The Savages" about grown children whose father has taken to smearing his feces over nursing home walls. Nor is it to be confused with James Ivory's smart-aleck, surreal indie film masterpiece "Savages" whose script by George W.S. Trow and Michael O'Donaghue actually flashed audiences with untranslated Greek (among other things).
This is the one where Jules and Jim step out of a Francois Truffaut movie, move to Laguna Beach, go into the high-power weed business and have to contend with Mexican drug cartels who want to move in on their success and are getting decidedly nasty about it. Truffaut, of course, had nothing to do with this, but the basic relationship here with primo weed tycoons Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and the spoiled blonde rich goddess they both love and enjoy physically (Blake Lively) is as close to Truffaut's triangle of Henri Serre, Oskar Werner and Jeanne Moreau as you'll find at the 21st century multiplex this weekend.
The weed the boys manufacture is Super Weed, much loved by its consumers everywhere and therefore much-coveted by rivals. It's from seeds imported from Afghanistan and has THC levels in the unlikely 33 neighborhood compared to the cartels' product whose THC levels hover around 3.5. It's luxury product vs. "Walmart" as the boys think of it. And Walmart isn't happy.
So two -- count 'em -- cartels decide that they're each going to force the boys into business with them so that, eventually, as venture mobsters are wont to do, they can get rid of the boys altogether.
Meanwhile back at the sexually busy threesome, they're bonging away and then you get the idea. Because this is shamefully entertaining amorality and probably Oliver Stone's best movie of the new millennium, everyone is almost as sharply delineated as the archetypal characters in "Platoon." Stone is working from a novel by TV writer/producer Don Winslow and he's careful to make sure every character is actually drawn with sharpness and precision so that all the ambiguity that ruins the threesome's idyll has that much more impact.
Chon is an Iraq war vet who still can't get the war out of his system. When he has sex with "O" (Blake Lively, who narrates the whole film), it's like he's trying to f--- away the war, she says. She has orgasms, she tells us, he has "wargasms." Ben (Johnson) is a sweeter, softer sort who makes love, not sex or war.
Ben is in the happiness business. His product is the best ever and so, he thinks, is his life (which includes doing good in Southeast Asia). Chon the war vet is the enforcer, the guy who waves his gun around when clients forget to reimburse the boys for all that superfine herb.
Will they be a match for the two predatory organizations moving north from Mexico to take over -- the nasty bunch led by Salma Hayek with Benicio Del Toro as the sadistic enforcer or the bunch led by "El Azul?"
Everyone thinks that every other rival in the trade is a "savage" for one reason or another (trading women, beheading competitors etc.).
There's your movie, a scabrously mordant and darkly funny tale of trouble in paradise in the pipelines of the Big Buck Weed Business in Southern California. John Travolta plays a DEA agent who's quite profitably in business with everyone, collecting his regular skim off the top and running interference but unfortunately dealing with two young kids and a wife dying of cancer.
This is not only in the great amoral tradition of American crime movies, it is, for indentured Stone analysts, a field day of misbehavior.
So, if you want, you can move your pieces on the board in the game of Oliver's Brain thusly: remember that Stone, the son of a stockbroker, was a Yale dropout with major Daddy issues at the exact same time that fellow Yale students George W. Bush and David Milch were misbehaving there with large Daddy issues. You don't want to hurry to locate Yale as the early and mid-'60s American Ground Zero for Daddy Issues we're still living with a half century later, but it does sometimes seem that way.
Stone at first taught in Vietnam and then won a Bronze Star and Purple Heart as a soldier there.
So there, in "Savages" you've got the constituent parts of our ultra-violent filmmaker in constant dialogue with other parts of himself until he can figure out finally how the shouting match within can end and all his abrasive selves can live together in harmony.
Who'd have thought that Stone's psychic maladjustments would make him such an entertaining filmmaker for so long? What's certain is this: when he's been serious of late ("W.," "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"), he's often been a ridiculous miniature of his best self. When he misbehaves and drops out, you get a charismatic glimpse of some of the real guy. And for all the gore and promiscuous bulletry of "Savages," he's jolly good company.
3 stars (out of 4) †††
STARRING: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, Salma Hayek †††
DIRECTOR: Oliver Stone †††
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes †††
RATING:R for a whopping amount of sex, nudity, drug use, language and strong brutal and grisly violence. †††
THE LOWDOWN: A threesome in the high-power weed business has their love and sex idyll destroyed when the Mexican cartels move in. †††