Savages is Oliver Stone doing what he should have done a long time ago: making a tricky, amoral, down-and-dirty crime thriller that's blessedly free of any social, topical, or political relevance. How liberated from an agenda is this movie? It's about two marijuana dealers in Laguna Beach who run afoul of a Mexican drug cartel, and the film has nothing at all to say about either undocumented immigrants or the war on drugs. Yet you can feel how alive Stone is to the material. He stamps every scene with his darkly combustible cinematic personality. Based on a novel by Don Winslow, Savages is grandiose underworld pulp staged with screw-tightening skill and a taste for nasty kicks that spills over into sadism and dread. It's like a jacked-up Miami Vice told from the point of view of the criminals.
The film is narrated, in a Sunset Boulevard-meets-Kill Bill way, by Ophelia (Blake Lively), known as O, a free-spirited California blonde who lives with, and loves, two guys and is their anything-goes siren-goddess. Chon (Taylor Kitsch), a scarred, sexy hunk of an Afghanistan war vet, is the tougher and more volatile of the men. His friend and business partner, the gentler Ben (Aaron Johnson), is a wispy-bearded nihilist hippie. The two went into the drug game together with a crop of ''primo'' marijuana seeds that Chon smuggled back from Afghanistan after enlisting in the military for that purpose. They've harvested those seeds into a greenhouse crop that yields weed with THC levels of 33 percent (the best high anyone's ever had). But the popularity of their product threatens the cartel's business, which is why the gangsters come calling like a vicious corporation that talks ''partnership'' when it means ''hostile takeover.''
Run by a ruthless matriarch (Salma Hayek) from her hacienda, the cartel issues a warning in the form of a creepy Internet video of a dungeon full of freshly decapitated victims. But Chon and Ben are too arrogant to know what they're dealing with. So the gangsters kidnap O and place her in the dungeon, where they threaten to hack off her fingers. Savages is violent enough to risk turning off a portion of the audience. Yet even as the movie descends into blood-spattered exploitation, it's revving up the suspense. When characters are threatened with stuff this brutal, you'd better believe there's something at stake.
To get O back, Chon and Ben must become masterminds and warriors. They have to descend into savagery themselves. Stone presents some bravura set pieces, from a pulse-quickening encounter with a highway cop to an incendiary multivehicle heist to every scene with Benicio Del Toro as a very scary sociopath. As for Taylor Kitsch, he wipes away any lingering John Carter cobwebs with his explosive performance, and John Travolta is funny and desperate as a DEA agent up to his ears in slime. Exciting as it is, Savages does slide off the rails during the last half hour. The film goes from intense to indulgent, plausible to preposterous. But it's still a pleasure to see Stone settle into this dark groove. B+