Over-the-Top ‘Savages’ Is Director Stone’s Comeback

Brutal enforcer Lado (BENICIO DEL TORO) and his boss, Elena (SALMA HAYEK), in “Savages.” ¬©Universal Studios.

By JAMES DAWSON

Front Row Features Film Critic

“Savages” is an irresistibly over-the-top thriller about double-crossing drug lords that’s cool, complicated and the good kind of crazy. It’s also a real return to form for director/co-writer Oliver Stone, whose last outing was 2010’s dreadful and conventional “Wall Street” sequel “Money Never Sleeps.”

Although not as stylishly strange as Stone’s beyond-bizarre “Natural Born Killers,” “Savages” manages to be alternately hard-boiled suspenseful and a little post-modern preposterous. What’s impressive is how well Stone makes this unlikely mixture work over a fast-moving 131-minute running time.

“Just ’cause I’m telling you this story doesn’t mean that I’m alive at the end of it,” says the sexually accommodating California blond known as O (Blake Lively) in voiceover narration at the movie’s start. The last flick that began with a similar fourth-wall-breaking disclaimer was the 2010 superhero parody “Kick-Ass,” which took an even more irreverent approach to its genre. “Savages,” based on the bestselling novel by Don Winslow and with a screenplay by Winslow, Stone and Shane Salerno, is so uninhibitedly amped that parts of it play like parody while others are pure pulp-fiction perfection.

O-for-Ophelia is the open-relationship lover of two couldn’t-be-more-different friends who have become fabulously wealthy running a high-grade marijuana empire. Studly Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is a rigidly humorless former Navy SEAL and military mercenary, the kind of perpetually locked-and-loaded alpha male who has “wargasms, not orgasms.” While O thinks of Chon as “cold metal,” she describes his Buddhist-mellow botanist best buddy Ben (Aaron Johnson) as “warm wood.”

A horrifically bloody mass-execution video they receive serves as a calling card from a Mexican cartel that wants to partner with their operation. When Chon and Ben refuse that very hostile takeover offer, O is kidnapped by a disturbingly vicious enforcer known as Lada (a terrifically menacing Benicio Del Toro) to convince them to change their minds.

John Travolta offers some dark comic relief as a good-natured but very dirty DEA agent who is candidly comfortable about being corrupt. And Salma Hayek is a hoot as Elena “La Reina,” the imperious dragon lady at the head of the Mexican organization. A murderously amoral monster when it comes to business, Elena has a vulnerably maternal soft spot for her resentful and Americanized daughter.

Fittingly for its title, “Savages” doesn’t shy away from occasional scenes of ultra-violence that include bloody gunplay, an explosive ambush, turf-war beheadings and an excruciating immolation. The leering Lana is so scarily sadistic you’ll never look at a gardening crew the same way after seeing what happens during his house calls.

Stone keeps the action moving at such an unflagging pace that the tension never lets up once bad things start happening. A night scene in which Chon and Ben are racing the clock to deliver a vanload of pot when they notice a potentially troublesome cop behind them is an edge-of-the-seat nailbiter. Stone also pulls off an audaciously outrageous ending that is both eye-rollingly silly but incredibly satisfying.

The wildly entertaining “Savages” may be the most gloriously unrefined fun you’ll have at a thriller this year.