Film review: Savages

Salma Hayek and Benicio del Toro in Savages
Salma Hayek and Benicio del Toro in Savages
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THERE’S a tenacious bulldog quality to Oliver Stone. He hasn’t made a truly provocative movie in more than a decade, unless you count W’s enormous and unwarranted sympathetic coddling of George W Bush. And it’s been even longer since he made a truly good film.

Savages (15)

Director: Oliver Stone

Running time: 131 minutes

Star rating: * *

Savages does nothing to change the downward trajectory of his chart. A cross between Traffic, Blow and a massacre, it is a pulpy, putrid, purposeless collage of drug cliches.

Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch play hunky California stoners Ben and Chon, who grow a superstrong genetically engineered strain of dope which they sell legally for medical prescription but also illegally across the state border. The income allows them to make millions and share an amiable love triangle with free-spirited nutjob Ophelia (Blake Lively). I was quite intrigued by the workings of this ménage, although unfortunately Stone clearly is not, so we never find out how two rather macho men rationalise sharing a bed not just with O, but each other. And are there no other eligible women apart from this cutesy shoplifter? And when she’s kidnapped and left to eat pizza and watch cable TV, does she regard this as inhuman torture, or a night off from two blokes with freewheeling views on hygiene

Unfortunately Ophelia is also the movie’s narrator. “Just ’cos I’m telling you this story doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end of it,” she warns at the start; a tantalising promise, because once Ophelia starts telling us what’s going on, she can’t shut up. Ophelia often talks like a stoner Julie Burchill, with a lethal addiction to poor puns. “He’s always trying to f*** the war out of himself,” is one piercing insight. “I have orgasms; he has wargasms.” And while Ben is a Buddhist, the damaged ex-army Chon is “a Baddist”.

Savages would be a lot better if one of her kidnappers had the sense to gaffertape Ophelia’s mouth. Also, you can soon guess how her lines will flip long before she reaches them. “Dope is supposed to be bad,” she begins. “But in a bad, bad world” “…it’s good,” we groan.

A bigger problem is that even as a threesome they don’t add up to even one interesting personality, so it’s hard not to cheer when the Baja cartel arrives on the scene, determined to flatten these bronzed hedonists. Both sides regard each other as “savages”, but the Mexicans create a climate of fear by Skyping their rivals and showing them videos of beheadings and torture, yet for a while at least they are lively, and hair and wardrobe clearly had a ball.

The boss of Baja is drug widow Salma Hayek, who combines the hair of Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, the stilettos and cleavage of a pole dancer, and the sentimentality of Madame Mao. I enjoyed Salma, and also her enforcer played with gleeful guignol by Benicio del Toro, who has some great scenes with John Travolta’s whiney bent copper.

Eventually however the unpleasant and unnecessarily graphic torture scenes are just depressing. There’s a moment with an eye dangling out of its socket that reminded me of Stone’s brutish American football story Any Given Sunday, where gladiatorial play stops briefly so that the hulking players can hunt around the pitch to retrieve an eyeball. Back then Stone still knew the difference between gonzo exaggeration and pathetically strained attempts to shock. That line is crossed repeatedly with Savages, long before it reaches its peculiar and unwarranted final twist. «

• On general release from Friday