Oliver Stone’s mean little thriller about dope, guns, and fucking in the California sun is enough fun to watch that, for about half of its running time, I didn’t care that it has little else going for it. An Oliver Stone screenplay used to bring with it a wild-eyed bid for topicality — films like Salvador and Scarface stood not just as provocation but also as snapshots of their era. Savages nods briefly in the direction of politics, with a sidelong reference to the presumably inevitable three-years-hence legalization of the kind of hard-to-get, THC-rich substance that’s the speciality of sexed-up potheads Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who get rich quick on their killer weed by day, then kick polyamorous squeeze Ophelia (Blake Lively) back and forth between them like a hacky-sack by night. Shit gets real when a Mexican drug cartel takes an interest in their business acumen and offers them a partnership they’d love to refuse.
The characters are standard issue — our protags are the cruel practical one and the shrewd idealistic one, and their south-of-the-border rivals are off-brand variants on familiar Latino stereotypes. But cinematographer Dan Mindel catches it all in lush Panavision, his imagery layered with polychromatic grain that dances on screen in a shimmering hosanna to 35mm cinematography. And Stone can elicit riveting character moments; all of them involve Benicio Del Toro, who is awesome in a performance of great skeevy gravity as a mustache-twirling heavy who cuts heads on grainy Internet video streams. But then poor Salma Hayek is asked to lift the whole film onto her shoulders, and she’s just not cut out for it. It doesn’t help that her character is written as a hoary old feminine stereotype — the spurned mother aching over her unrequited love for a darling daughter who dishes out heartache.
In this regard, Lively gets an especially raw deal. I wouldn’t have minded so much that the film turned a little rapey in its final act if her character hadn’t been written as a spoiled California gurl spouting bubble-headed clichés about self-actualization when staring into the abyss. Given her genuine lack of agency, the film’s sex-assault punchline isn’t just gratuitous; it feels like Ophelia’s punishment, or comeuppance, and that’s distasteful. Moreover, the film’s routine final reel doesn’t come close to earning the desperate mulligan that it employs. I won’t lie — I have a soft spot for lurid, family-unfriendly programmers like this, and they’ve become increasingly rare, so I had a good time at my Saturday matinee. But it’s too bad that Savages runs on testosterone and bluster and not much else.