(L-R) Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively and Aaron Johnson in "Savages"...

(L-R) Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively and Aaron Johnson in "Savages" (Francois Duhamel) Credit: (L-R) Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively and Aaron Johnson in "Savages" (Francois Duhamel)

3 stars
Directed by Oliver Stone
Starring Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek
Rated R

"Savages" is a minor story of cross-border narco violence enlivened by Oliver Stone's twisty, stylistic flair. It's a colorful, California- and Baja-set fantasy-nightmare, with pristine oceanside mansions, sun-drenched beaches and sleek environmentally-friendly interiors set against the grim, sadistic drug-trafficking underworld.

Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson star as best friends Chon and Ben, a military vet and green-oriented UC Berkeley graduate. They're good buddies who share everything. Co-partners in an enormous, extremely profitable marijuana production and distribution business, the tandem alsodates the same woman: the beautiful but troubled O (Blake Lively). When a Mexican drug cartel infringes on the naive trio's Laguna Beach luxury, things get messy and violent fast.

The movie offers what's essentially a simplistic, candy-coated spin on "Breaking Bad," as our heroes are driven down the proverbial debaucherous rabbit hole. But it's tense and energized, propelled by Stone's tight grip on narrative momentum, his penchant for warped imagery and Benicio Del Toro's wickedly sadistic portrayal of the cartel's primo henchman.

It's also a welcome return to form for the director, who shows off the dynamic filmmaking chops that have made him such an essential cinematic voice. This is much closer in tone and spirit to Stone's exciting "Wall Street" and "Natural Born Killers" periods than his recent run of mediocre propagandistic documentaries ("South of the Border") and highfalutin messes ("W."). Smartly refusing to turn "Savages" into an anti-drug war message, the filmmaker scrubs the production free of politics and zeros in on its genre roots.

A gleeful, entertaining concoction rife with unrestrained violence, sexuality and drug use, "Savages" stands apart from the teen-friendly ethos that drives the summer movie season. Trading in corrupt morals, featuring characters that don't learn their lessons, it's a nihilistic enterprise proudly geared toward adults. Sure, the protagonists are self-indulgent bores, the narrative peters out with a weird bout of self-reflexive tomfoolery and the movie won't be remembered as one of Stone's masterpieces. But it's a lot of fun.

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