Stone brings out the Savages

Dopeheads and gangsters clash in Oliver Stone's most fun film to date

Oliver Stone's Savages is cheerfully cynical, ingloriously basked in the Malibu sunshine and fired up by threesome sex, super-bred cannabis and bong-water bravado. It's lurid, sexy, funny, chaotic, cluttered, and if the grisly violence turns you off then Blake Lively _ playing a very dumb blonde _ and her two beaus (plus John Travolta, pudgy and hilariously nervous) will also chip in laugh-out-loud moments, all the while with the director winking off-scene.

Blake Lively plays a wasted beauty in Savages .

And because this is an Oliver Stone movie, the dark wounds of war, from Iraq to Afghanistan, and shadows of government cynicism lurk in the background _ though this time they're sources of riotous sarcasm rather than redemptive trauma. "Where can we find the world's best cannabis?" asks a character early on. "Afghanistan," quips his buddy. And when the sultry empress of a Mexican drug cartel (played by Salma Hayek) dares cross the border to the US, she ensures her safety by remaining in an opulent ranch on a Native American reservation (didn't the term "savages" once refer to the native Indians?). "Technically it's not the US," says a policeman. "Or maybe it is."

The film is narrated by Lively's character, O, a wasted beauty of true Californian pedigree who enjoys the illegal exploits and bodily warmth of not just one but two hunks, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson). Chon, an ex-marine who fought in Iraq, is O's "earth", while Ben, a botanical expert with very soft hands, is her "spirit". So what does that make her? "A slut", _ that's not me, for O utters that very word herself only to rebuke us, because the three of them are in love with one another in an exalted, south Californian way that you or me or those who don't have a cliffside villa overlooking the Pacific and can't afford a regular hit on Ben's hand-grown magic weed will never understand.

Ben and Chon are surfer dudes who have got extremely rich from their indie marijuana business. Due to Ben's expertise in botany, he stopped importing from Kabul and devised several strands of cannabis that won rave review from dopeheads inside and outside the country who keep their bongs ever-bubbling. The two friends deal their homegrown cannabis the same way that young dotcom entrepreneurs dealt their software before the bust: with youthful energy and American optimism. They even fly to Africa and other impoverished locales to do charitable work funded, apparently, by their narco cash. Of course their business is recession-proof, and even though they try to keep things non-violent (Ben practices Buddhism), Chon, the brawn to Ben's brain, is always there to inject a dose of fist and fury.

The possibility of paranoia is kept to a minimum because the duo grease the sweaty palms of anti-drug Agent Dennis (Travolta). That only lasts for so long. The Ben-Chon-O paradise finally cracks when a beheading video arrives in their mailbox _ the grainy quality is that of torture-porn, with severed heads lying around. The Baja Cartel, a Mexican marijuana ring run by Elena (Hayek) and her grouchy henchman Lado (Benicio Del Toro), is moving in for a hostile takeover of the bosom buddies' weed operation. When the two _ who always prefer peace to pandemonium _ refuse, the Mexicans kidnap O to force them to agree to their demands.

What happens afterwards is a series of long, convoluted, sometimes messy ruses between the naive gringos bent on retrieving the love of their lives and the murderous Mexicans who do not believe _ as no one should _ in running a peaceful, philanthropic drug cartel. Running at 130 minutes, the film makes sure to tend to each character and soon we realise that this is probably a belated, perverse sequel to Stone's Platoon, Born On the Fourth of July and Wall Street 2, in which young Americans with good heart suffers the reality of pain brought on by their own innocence, stupidity and the inevitable villainy of the world.

To say that Savages is a story of moral disgrace is possible _ watch Ben the munificent soul, especially _ and yet Stone pulls away from the flamboyant tragedy of, say, Natural Born Killers, as he alternates between siding with his American adventurers and gleefully exposing their naivete. The ironic humour cuts through the whole thing, even the violence, and the result is one long film that's both disturbing and blood-rushing.

Maybe this is the first time that actors in a Stone film seems to be really enjoying themselves; they're not playing typecasts _ from the gullible Americans to the sadistic thug Lado and the vicious desert-queen Elena _ but caricatures, exaggerated both for comical and hallucinatory effects. Benicio Del Toro, as Lado, appears like an Elvis impersonator minus the upturned collar, and his spit-flying dialogue wavers between farcical and menacing. Lively, as O, has something in her spoiled-girl attractiveness that can be pathetic and, at certain angles, tragic. While the two boys, Kitsch and Johnson, swagger with the full confidence and vacuity of oversunned beach boys _ in this film that's a compliment. The combined effect is not what international dopeheads may call high as a kite, but the splash of attitude is bona fide. Savages isn't an Oliver Stone film that we'll remember for long, and yet it's one that we can call fun.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist