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'Savages' is a love story tangled up with the war on drugs

Oliver Stone's film is based on Don Winslow's novel about a woman kidnapped by a Mexican cartel.

January 15, 2012|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • John Travolta, left, Taylor Kitsch and Oliver Stone on the set of the movie "Savages."
John Travolta, left, Taylor Kitsch and Oliver Stone on the set of the movie… (Francois Duhamel / Universal…)

Ben, Chon and O are Southern California dreamers — and in Oliver Stone's upcoming film "Savages," they run right into a Mexican drug cartel nightmare.

The two young men and woman at the center of Don Winslow's novel that inspired Stone's film are green-thinking Laguna Beach entrepreneurs, but rather than fabricating solar panels or organizing compost classes, the comely trio farms and sells knock-your-socks off marijuana, a hybrid weed so powerful it quickly becomes the envy of less kindhearted dealers south of the border.

"It's a classic Walmart against a high-end boutique," said Stone, who directed the Sept. 28 Universal release from a script by Shane Salerno (television's "Hawaii Five-0") and Winslow, whose celebrated crime novels include "The Power of the Dog" and "The Winter of Frankie Machine."

The cast is lead by Taylor Kitsch, who also stars in the studio's big-budget summer movie "Battleship" and Disney's "John Carter" this year. He plays Chon, a former Navy Seal and a longtime friend of agricultural associate Ben ("Kick-Ass'" Aaron Johnson). Ben comes from a more serene place — he's originally a Bay Area kid, after all — but both men set aside their pacifist tendencies when O (Blake Lively), the willowy woman with whom they both are in love, is kidnapped by the cartel.

The Mexican hoods have their own commanding female figure: Kingpin Elena (Salma Hayek), joined by the thug Lado (Benicio Del Toro), who favors baseball bats and chain saws over more conventional weapons.

Winslow's book is, as Stone calls it, "post-modern" — the first chapter is but two words, the first of which can't be printed here. "He used a lot of shorthand — everything was elliptical, so we can't match what he does on the page," Stone said. "But it was all absolutely vivid."

Stone said the film is hard to categorize — it's part gangster film, part drug drama, part love story. "I call it a romantic action-movie thriller," the director of "Wall Street" and "JFK" said.

The screenplay largely follows the novel (the book's "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" ending may be tweaked a bit) and brings to physical life much of what Winslow imagined — including some indoor, hydroponic pot farms that look far too genuine. Thanks to their lab work, Chon and Ben are able to produce a cannabis strain second to none, leading them to see themselves more as inventors than law breakers.

"It doesn't occur to them that they are criminals," Stone said.

Although Stone, a true libertarian when it comes to drugs, hopes the movie works purely as entertainment, he's also optimistic that "Savages" might prompt tough questions about the legitimacy of the war on drugs.

"I think that would be great," the director said.

john.horn@latimes.com

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