'Savages': The good, the bad, the boring ★★

Interesting characters found in the background

'Savages'

John Travolta and Taylor Kitsch in "Savages." (July 3, 2012)

Taken from Don Winslow's novel, the Oliver Stone fulminator"Savages" proves that marijuana cultivation, sales and distribution are the right way to live large and menage a trois it through endless summer days and nights with your bromantic best pal and your special lady friend. Life is beautiful, and Laguna Beach, Calif., is full of beautiful people nearly as beautiful as you.

Your marijuana business may receive unwanted interest from representatives of a Mexican drug cartel, and there may be some torture and head-removal by chain saw related to your interactions with that cartel. But with luck those things will happen to lesser players in your story, not you.

Main players in a moment, but first, the supporting cast.

Best of show here: Benicio Del Toro. The Oscar winner stayed on the right side of the law in "Traffic"; here, in Stone's film, which Stone adapted along with Shane Salerno and Winslow, Del Toro oozes ooze as the scuzziest Mexican drug lord in existence. His character, Lado, works for the head, shoulders and cleavage of the Baja cartel, La Reina, portrayed by Salma Hayek in what appears to be a sampling of a million different telenovela villains.

Each time Del Toro rolls into the frame in "Savages," about to put the hammer down on an unfortunate colleague or submit to a verbal pistol-whipping from Ms. Big, he sends up the material ever so slyly.

A generation ago (in the Bond film "License to Kill") Del Toro transcended the limited opportunities afforded by a garden-variety henchman. He's still transcending those boundaries without trashing the material, which comes more or less pre-trashed, the actor affirms his character actor wiles with every sinister flourish. How can you hate a guy who loves his job so much?

"Savages" is a silly and self-serious movie, but its juiciest turns (John Travolta activates his exposition-heavy dialogue nicely as a jumpy, double-dealing Drug Enforcement Administration officer) offer some distraction from the torpor generated by the script's central trio. There is Chon, ex-Navy SEAL and recent Iraq War veteran, played by Taylor Kitsch. Aaron Johnson is Chon's friend and business partner, the pacifist Ben, who believes in peace, love, helping the world's poor and turning some of his drug profits over to righteously noble causes. Narrating the film, Blake Lively's O (for Ophelia) bounces between the two, and in voice-over establishes the desired tone of blase fatalism. "Just 'cause I'm telling you this story doesn't mean I'm alive at the end of it," she says.

When the Baja crew tries to muscle in on the white boys' action, "Savages" flirts with indictments of the war on drugs in between scenes of flamboyant brutality. In one such bit, recent Oscar nominee Demian Bichir (as La Reina's legal adviser) is seen with his eye dangling out of its socket after a bullwhip interrogation. It's not as if Stone is above this sort of pulp. But as rejiggered for the movies, "Savages" has trouble making us care what happens to the beautiful people — the untouchables — at the center of the sun-baked fairy tale. As one commenter on imdb.com put it: "After seeing the trailer ... I'm already rooting for the cartels."

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Savages' -- 2 stars

MPAA rating: R (for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout)

Running time: 2:10

Opens: Friday

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