Silver Screen: Savages ***1/2

Silver Screen: Savages  ***1/2
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In the opening moments of Savages, a handheld camera sweeps across a room full of drug runners bound
Bryan Miller

In the opening moments of Savages, a handheld camera sweeps across a room full of drug runners bound to chairs in a dark, shabby room. The men cower at the sound of a chainsaw grinding into action, and the room fills with screams. It's a moment reminiscent of an infamous scene from another Oliver Stone collaboration about the drug trade, Brian De Palma's wildly overrated Scarface, which Stone wrote. Unlike Scarface, however, Savages isn't particularly concerned with the drug trade as metaphor, nor with the complexities of the immigrant experience. Stone's latest is an uncharacteristically straightforward thriller that brushes up against myriad political hot-button issues but never directly addresses them.

The antiheroes, or the morally murky ensemble pieces, are Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), California beach buddies who start up the country's most thriving boutique pot business. For Ivy League stoner Ben, cultivating the dankest of the dank is a thrilling black-market diversion that helps fund his overseas charity work, while war vet and muscleman Chon views it as just a way to gain a little personal freedom in an otherwise cruel and pointless world. Their yin-and-yang partnership is sealed by their shared love, Ophelia (Blake Lively), an easygoing beach bunny who's all femme and no fatale. Theirs is a harmonious love triangle-- at least until the chainsaw wielders decide they want a piece of the action.

Ben and Chon view their weed business as a (mostly) harmless enterprise, so when representatives of a vicious Mexican cartel try to co-opt their business practices into a larger-scale and bloodier drug trade, the boys try to shirk the deal. To coerce their compliance, the boss of the cartel (Salma Hayek) employs her ruthless right-hand vato Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap Ophelia and use her as a bargaining chip.

Savages is based on the novel of the same name by former P.I. turned crimewriter Don Winslow. It's a dynamite book, stripped-down and angular, tough but written in a prose-poem style that takes Elmore Leonard's laid-back lilt to a new level. Unfortunately, Stone's script, cowritten with Shane Salerno and Winslow himself, loses so much of that luscious language and, along with it, the slick, sick humor that provides a mellow contrast to the gritty subject matter. The novel's arch tone is lost on Lively, whose Ophelia narrates the movie with a sense of impending doom that weighs down the bloody, breezy story.

What the movie lacks in black humor it makes up for with crackling action and a fantastic ensemble cast that brings the second-tier characters to life. Del Toro is a rumpled, laconic terror with an aura of menace shimmering around him like heat rising off a blacktop road. His Lado could hang with the best of the baddies: Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, Javier Bardem's more refined, particular sadist from No Country for Old Men. As his similarly ruthless boss, Hayek is captivating; she's an architect of mass murder whose tragic past and maternal streak complicate an otherwise single-minded approach. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise is John Travolta, whose brief turn as a crooked Drug Enforcement Administration agent reminds us why he got to be a movie star in the first place. He turns a two-dimensional plot device into a sympathetic character, and he also shows the most verbal agility with Winslow's patois. (This is the man, after all, who put the chill in Chili Palmer in Get Shorty, still a high-water mark for über-cool crime comedies.)

As for the stars, they get a little lost in the shuffle-- appropriate, given the movie's plot. Johnson is fine, and the likable Kitsch fares far better here than in his twin blockbuster disasters of the summer. Lively is nicely cast until she talks, when she turns her name into a most unfortunate oxymoron.

Savages turns out to be a nifty piece of business, if a little unmemorable. But even a calmed-down Oliver Stone can still send out a frenetic blast of colorful, nicely crafted images. If he plays his subtext a little too close to the vest, well, better that than literally writing the themes across his characters' chests à la Natural Born Killers. Savages is an iconoclast’s day at the beach, but that means it’s still thorny and tough and troubling, even if it sometimes seems to be just admiring the scenery.