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MOVIE REVIEW: Oliver Stone's 'Savages' not even mediocre

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This film image released by Universal Pictures shows John Travolta , left, and Taylor Kitsch in a scene from "Savages." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Francois Duhamel)

Savages

(R)

2 out of 4 stars

The last time director Oliver Stone revisited his glory days ("Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"), the majority of critics hated it and few people went to see it. Doing it again but not going back so far in time and to a less glorious period, Stone mixes the sick-puppy mayhem of "Natural Born Killers" and the Western noir of "U-Turn" with "Savages."

It's based on a book of the same name by Don Winslow, a pulp novelist who is a cross between Raymond Chandler minus finesse and Carl Hiaasen without the wit. As the title might suggest, everything in "Savages" is done to the extreme but in the end, it's just a bunch of noise and all of it rings hollow. But because it is so beautifully photographed and stuffed to the gills with sex, skin, blood, drugs, guns and explosions, the target demographic (18- to 24-year-old men) are likely to overlook its lack of logic and many narrative shortcomings.

The leads are right out of a Hiaasen novel set in the Everglades. Chon (yes -- Chon, played by Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) -- best friends since they were kids -- are the most successful marijuana growers in southern California. The aggressive Chon is an ex-Navy SEAL who joined the service for the sole purpose of going to Afghanistan to cop the best pot seeds in the world and return them to the passive Ben, a Berkeley graduate with a degree in botany.

The guys live together in a mansion on Laguna Beach with Ophelia (Blake Lively), aka O, with whom they are both romantically involved. In one of the movie's few interesting bits of dialogue, another character wisely points out late in the game how two men could share the same woman and not be jealous of each other.

Because Chon and Ben's stuff is so good (over 30 percent THC content), Mexican cartel leader Elena (Salma Hayek) wants in and makes them a more-than-generous offer for their ID and client list. This sounds great to Ben, who wants out so he can move to Africa and save the world. Chon, for no reason other than to be a contrarian, nixes the deal. Used to getting her way and unafraid of employing any means necessary to achieve her goals, Elena has her goons (led by Benicio del Toro playing an alternative-universe version of his "Traffic" character) kidnap O.

This more than gets the boys' attention and in keeping with their respective behavioral traits, Ben wants to make a deal and Chon decides to go gonzo. After blackmailing crooked DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) into turning over sensitive data, Chon and Ben turn it over to their in-house hacker Spin (Emile Hirsch) who conjures up some truly imaginative paper trails that serve multiple purposes and give Elena pause to reconsider her method of attack.

By the time Stone, Winslow and third writer Shane Salerno begin the third act (about the 90 minute mark in the 130 minute movie), the escalating one-upmanship between the two sides ventures deep into laughable and ludicrous territory. Each camp repeatedly dares the other to step over the same line in the sand and the tit-for-tat back-and-forth grows tiresome. All we want at this point is for somebody to live up to their bluster and bravado and so something that passes for decisive.

Fearful of whacking too many of their principals too soon, the screenwriters instead kill off dozens of incidental and marginal characters in a variety of gruesome and graphic ways. There are beheadings by chainsaw, close-up mob-style head shots, assorted blade cuts, flogging and gasoline. While this provides the audience with much lurid titillation and fleeting shock, it never raises the narrative stakes and reflects timid, unsure writing.

Without giving anything away, the film decides to jump straight to the extra features portion of the home video release by offering up two radically different endings, neither of which is satisfying in the least and, in keeping with the rest of the film, goes to two ends of opposite extremes.

This holiday weekend you've got your choice of three new releases: a mediocre action/adventure ("The Amazing Spider-man"), a mediocre art-house comedy ("To Rome with Love") and the not-even-mediocre "Savages." (Universal)