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I’ve not read Don Winslow’s critically and commercially successful drug-trade suspense novel, Savages, but I’m almost willing to surmise that he may have made a mistake in entrusting director Oliver Stone with its screen adaptation (assuming, of course, he had a choice). I’m speaking aesthetically; Winslow may be well satisfied with the financial arrangements and the results. And there is the small matter of his share of the writing credit (with Stone and Shane Salerno).

Still, this movie seemed more than a little out of whack to me, given Winslow’s reputation. New York Times crime-fiction columnist Marilyn Stasio, for example, has commended him for his “chill,” “cool” style, and his skillfully amusing evocations of one kind of Southern California life. If there is anything the hyperkinetic, obsessively lurid Stone is not known for, it’s a chill style, or a communicated sense of fun. Savages is unlikely to change that impression. It’s frequently a frenetically, even gruesomely, violent exercise. And for all its slash-and-burn character—I mean this description literally—it’s also curiously clumsy and flat at times.

The movie centers on three young mutually loving and sexually involved dope merchants in Laguna Beach who run afoul of a brutal Mexican drug cartel that wants to acquire their operation. And won’t take “no” for an answer, as it soon makes horribly clear. Chon (Taylor Kitsch), O—it stands for Ophelia—(Blake Lively), and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are meant to be sympathetic, and there even seems to be an innocence-destroyed subtheme, but they’re not really persuasively drawn or played, even in pulp-fiction terms. The most vivid characters are portrayed by Salma Hayek as the cooly murderous cartel chief and Benicio Del Toro as her gruesomely evil henchman. A clunky voice-over from O is supposed to fill in some of what’s probably gone missing, but it’s too much tell, not enough show.

Some of the action sequences are skillfully put together, but the final effect isn’t really credible. I’m also willing to make a small wager that the novel’s resolution has been heavily altered. The movie’s ending isn’t just a copout, it feels tacked on.

Watch the trailer for Savages

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