Oliver Stone returns to the noirish territory of U-Turn and Natural Born Killers with this adaptation of the Don Winslow novel Savages. It oozes with California cool and there's a lot of coldblooded killing, too, as Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Taylor Kitsch play dope dealers treading on the toes of a Mexican drug lord.
Salma Hayek is unlikely mob boss Elena, who does truly inspire terror with the clack of her heels and a black, thousand-yard stare. She wants the boys onside as she expands her empire north of the border, and they seem like easy prey given the hippy apparel and names that chime with a stoner comedy franchise - that's Ben and Chon (Taylor-Johnson and Kitsch respectively).
In fact, Chon is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and Ben is the razor-sharp brains of the outfit. The other tie that binds them is poor little rich girl Ophelia (aka O, played by Blake Lively), their shared girlfriend who, in eerie voiceover, explains that she mightn't be alive by the end of the film.
One of the more interesting aspects of the story is the skewed emphasis on family values, with Elena looking upon O as a sort of wretched orphan, sympathising to a degree, but prepared to kill her all the same.
Her own daughter (Sandra Echeverria) will have nothing to do with her - "and that makes me proud," she tells O. And Elena makes another insightful point, too: that Ben and Chon wouldn't share O if they didn't love each other more than they love her. That certainly comes across, and O seems vacuous anyway, existing merely to be objectified, victimised, battered and raped.
Unsurprisingly for Stone, the violence is very bloody and fetishistic, but it makes a powerful contrast with the New Age lifestyle Ben aspires to. Thankfully dropping the usual 'mean and moody' routine, Johnson plays his part with a clear-eyed determination and a softness, too, which O remarks upon as she compares lovers (Kitsch plays his part like a blunt instrument).
Stone negotiates the twists and turns of the plot with a similarly strong sense of purpose, making O a beacon of light for the boys to follow in an increasingly dark and scuzzy situation. Benecio del Toro is the epitome of all that as Elena's right-hand man and gleeful executioner, but John Travolta isn't far off, playing a corrupt federal agent who is frazzled by so much switching of allegiances.
There is an undercurrent of dark humour and a surreal sort of hellishness to the action, but while this makes the grittier aspects of the story more palatable, the euphoria of boy-girl-boy love story never resonates too deeply. Stone drags it out towards the end, staging an elaborate last stand in the desert without a big enough pay-off. Ultimately, this is just about the trip.