[Screen It]

(2012) (Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch) (R)

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Action: Two marijuana dealers in Southern California run afoul of a powerful Mexican drug lord who kidnaps their shared girlfriend.
Ben (AARON JOHNSON) and Chon (TAYLOR KITSCH) are a couple of drug dealers in Southern California known for their extremely pure and potent marijuana. They share a girlfriend named Ophelia, or "O" (BLAKE LIVELY), who lives with them, works with them, and has sex with both separately and at the same time. They refer to their arrangement as a "family."

That family is threatened when a powerful Mexican drug lord named Elena (SALMA HAYEK) wants in on their action and makes them an offer to work together through her lawyer, Alex (DEMIAN BICHIR). When they refuse and Elena gets word that they intend to flee the country, she has O kidnapped by her lethal henchman Lado (BENICIO DEL TORO) and threatened with death. Alex and Chon comply, but secretly plot to turn the tables on Elena and her organization.

They are in cahoots with a crooked FBI agent named Dennis (JOHN TRAVOLTA) and a super-smart computer hacker named Spin (EMILE HIRSCH). Together, they conspire to first, set up a member of Elena's crew to look like a snitch, and then second, kidnap Elena's estranged daughter Magda (SANDRA ECHEVERRIA) and arrange an exchange for O.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
There is no doubt that Oliver Stone's over-praised "Savages" is a very well-made film about drug dealers waging a "Who cares?" battle for supremacy in Southern California's marijuana trade. The editing is tight, the cinematography is top-notch, and there are two or three really well executed moments of suspense. The problem is it's a well-made dud. Stone has delivered a film that feels like it could easily drift off into outlandish, stylized Tarantino territory (and probably should have). But it keeps returning to some very base and unsavory elements that time and again short-circuit the film's entertainment value.

There are some crime movies out there where you get swept up into the characters' violent odysseys and you come to identify and even root for the criminals regardless of whether they are murderers, dope slingers, or mobsters. The allure of these films is that you get to tag along with some characters who have freed themselves from the moral and ethical constraints of normal, everyday life. They have the stones to kill a rival, usurp a boss, and seemingly take control of their lives in a world where one often feels like he or she has very little real control.

Not so with "Savages." You never quite buy the two lead drug dealers -- earthy crunchy Ben (Aaron Johnson) and violent war vet Chon (Taylor Kitsch) - in this film or want to thrill to their crimes (OK, I might have wanted to drive their cars). They're like concoctions. You have Ben, who has never had to kill or harm anyone to build his pot empire. He dreams of moving on and making clean energy his next endeavor. And he routinely goes on trips to far-flung locales around the globe to use large sums of his drug fortune to help less fortunate children. It's supposed to be a tragedy when this guy has to get his hands bloody. Puh-leze!

On the other end, we have the beautiful pin-up boy Taylor Kitsch doing a laughable job of playing Chon (?), a haunted war vet coming off two tours of duty in Afghanistan. The comedy continues when the drug lord who wants in on Ben and Chon's action is played by Salma Hayek, who you can't possibly buy as a cold-hearted viper with the will and the pull to hold together a cartel of cutthroats, murderers, and torture artists.

Stone, though, thinks he is making his "Scarface." I'm sorry. It just feels like a film that has been made by a dirty old man with issues - issues with women, issues with drug legalization, issues in general. If the film had reached a sort of "True Romance" fevered pitch with a good dose of dark humor and a collection of oddball, dirtball characters to breathe life into its main crime caper, Stone might have had something here. Instead, we have really good actors like Benicio Del Toro and Demian Bichir and Blake Lively debasing themselves. Lively, for instance, plays Ben and Chon's shared girlfriend in a relationship that when you think about it, you have to on some level shudder and go "Ewwwww!"

But even if you're with this film and have been liking it for its first two acts, I have to believe you'll be disappointed by an absolutely moronic climax in which Stone gives the audience not one, but two endings - one a fake-out and the other a cop-out. I don't mind the great director of "Platoon," "Wall Street," and "JFK" taking some time out from message movies and helming a personal flight of fancy. I do mind being subjected to two-plus hours of general unpleasantness and being deposited back out into the summer heat with nothing to show for it. I give the film a 4 out of 10. (T. Durgin)

Reviewed July 2, 2012 / Posted July 6, 2012

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