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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Savages’

Director Stone piles on the pulp

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It's easy to forget that Oliver Stone has interests aside from politics. But the director of politically charged movies such as "W.," "Wall Street," "Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July," "JFK" and "Nixon" is also the author of the screenplay for "Scarface," Brian De Palma's hyperviolent cult classic, and the director of the grimy, sun-scorched thriller "U Turn." Indeed, even the most political of his films, with their focus on sex, conspiracy and tense melodrama, have always carried a whiff of lurid pulp cinema.

Typically, however, Mr. Stone buries the pulp and flashes the prestige. With his latest film, "Savages," Mr. Stone does just the opposite. A sex-and-violence-filled look at boutique California pot dealers who end up in a war with a corporate Mexican drug cartel, it's a bloody, vicious genre picture hiding a politicized, anti-corporate rant at its core.

Based on the novel by Don Winslow, "Savages" is the tale of two surfing buddies from Laguna Beach who start a multimillion-dollar business selling high-quality marijuana. Much of it is distributed legally through the state's system of medical marijuana dispensaries, but strict legality is not the primary concern for the two operators.

Ben (a scraggly Aaron Johnson), the hippie-dippie Buddhist surfer who concocted the strain, is in it for the karma: He likes weed for its own sake but also likes that it helps the sick deal with their pain. And he invests the millions he makes from the business in global do-gooderism. Chon (a tan and tattooed Taylor Kitsch), an angry ex-soldier who ran special operations in Afghanistan, is in it for the kicks: Ben works to ensure that their operation is largely nonviolent, but on the occasions when a firmer hand is needed, Chon takes the lead.

The yin and yang of the two leads — one peaceful and the other violent, one brains and the other brawn, one about saving the world and the other about protecting himself — is made explicit in the narration provided by Ophelia (Blake Lively), the tanned blonde beach babe who is their mutual lover: "Together, they are one complete man," she explains.

And together, they find themselves in a world of hurt when a massive Mexican drug operation makes an offer to buy their business. Mr. Stone plays up the corporate takeover analogy with references to Wal-Mart and the BP oil spill but keeps the tempo rapid enough that the movie never feels too much like a lecture.

Indeed, part of what makes the movie so enjoyable is its flagrant sleaziness. The characters, even the leads, are all disreputable or unlikeable; as a cartel heavy and a crooked DEA agent, respectively, Benicio del Toro and John Travolta make clear that there are no good guys to be found in this dirty, druggy noir. When it works, it's as an unapologetic B-movie, taut and tawdry, crude and entertaining, a lightly politicized thriller that, thank goodness, is not primarily about politics.

★★★

TITLE: "Savages"

CREDITS: Directed by Oliver Stone from a screenplay by Shane Salerno, Don Winslow and Mr. Stone

RATING: R for graphic violence, frequent drug use, sex, rape

RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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