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Savage take on a brutal drug trade

big film of the week

savages (16, general release, 131 minutes)

Director: Oliver Stone Stars: Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Taylor Kitsch, Salma Hayek, Benicio Del Toro


Savage take on a brutal drug trade

William Oliver Stone has been accused of a great many things over the years, but never of excessive restraint. His films are often hobby-horse themed, and he attacks each one with an almost rabid gusto, throwing every technical trick and shocking scene he can think of into the mix in order to achieve the maximum impact.

Even his stronger films -- Platoon, Wall Street, Nixon -- have been marred by moments of clownish un-subtlety, yet at his best, Stone can be a compelling and passionate storyteller.

His hobby-horse here is at least an interesting one: the troubling link between the glamorous recreational drug use of privileged Californians and the murderous Mexican cartels who facilitate them. The laws of supply and demand have created Mexican drug gangs that make the Mafia look like The Brady Bunch, and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

As most of those lives are Mexican, the privileged idiots north of the border who snort coke on the weekends don't really give a damn, but Stone's film at least gives a few of them something to think about.

Blake Lively is O (short for Ophelia), a spoilt and airheaded rich girl who lives in an idyllic house overlooking Laguna Beach with not one man, but two.

Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are best friends and also business partners: Ben's a brilliant botanist, Chon's a former soldier and when he was on duty in Afghanistan, he smuggled back Afghan seeds that Ben has turned into high-grade marijuana.

Now their multi-million dollar business is booming, and (not entirely credibly) Ben, Chon and O all seem perfectly content with their ménage-a-trois sexual arrangement. Things are going swimmingly until the pair are approached by some Mexican gentlemen keen on doing business.

Alex (Demian Bichir) and Lado (Benicio Del Toro) are enforcers representing a cartel leader called Elena (Salma Hayek), and offer Ben and Chon a partnership that is one-sided and compromising.

Ben and Chon decide they want nothing to do with it and make plans to shut up shop and disappear to Indonesia, but before they can, Lado and his gang kidnap O.

Now Elena has Ben and Chon where she wants them, and insists on them playing ball if they want O to stay alive. But when the hotheaded Chon decides to fight back, things become unpredictable.

Somewhere in the middle of Savages lies a half-decent idea, but as usual Stone has taken it by the scruff of its neck and flogged it half to death. In the film's early scenes, he rather obviously but competently contrasts the sun-kissed, lucky lives of Californian drug enthusiasts with the chaos caused by the cartels to the south. And when Ben and Chon turn the Mexicans down, we seem on the verge of a half-decent thriller.

Stone, though, doesn't do things by halves.

It's almost as though a fevered over excitement takes hold of him midway through a project, and soon a fairly basic underworld yarn has been spun out into a two-hour-and-ten-minute trip through Dante's Inferno.

And Dante's Inferno with bad writing, if such a thing were conceivable, because the unqualified nastiness of the hysterical plot is counterpointed by some fairly stinky tracts of dialogue.

Messy, overlong and veering wildly all over the place in terms of tone, Savages is impossible to take seriously and features some really awful performances, particularly from Del Toro and John Travolta, who indulge themselves in an unseemly carpet-chewing contest while sharing a mercifully brief scene.

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