A frantic, if flawed drama-thriller with a violent edge, this Oliver Stone-directed picture revolves around two pot growers, one a hardened ex-soldier, the other more of a hippie, as they try and recover their kidnapped (mutual) girlfriend from a Mexican cartel. Their object of desire, O (for Ophelia), relays to us the story of how these two young punks made a multi-million dollar business out of bumming around in Laguna Beach, CA. While the more peaceful Ben wants to get out of the drug bidness and use their amassed coin to fund philanthropic and charitable institutions, Chon is more aggressive and does not see the increasing hostility of the Mexican drug war as a threat. That is, until they make an offer to buy their growing methods and U.S. contacts for 20% of their profits which the boys correctly presume is a thinly-veiled threat (if they refuse, which they want to, they’ll be chopped up by enforcers). They hastily make plans to go underground, but O gets her ass kidnapped on a last-minute trip to the mall, and her captors make it clear that they’ll hold her for one year as long as the duo pledges three years to working for the cartel. Now, Ben and Chon are on the same page; get O out, safely, without giving away the precious information and resources that are keeping themselves alive. This involves calling in favors from their army buddies and government contacts (specifically a manipulative DEA agent), compiling as much information about the cartels as possible, and generally fucking their shit up so bad that kidnapping their beloved girlfriend becomes an obvious profit reducer for their enemies.
This is not W. or Alexander Oliver Stone. This is Natural Born Killers/JFK/The Doors Oliver Stone, all extreme filters, hallucinogenic editing, and hardcore, visceral violence. Remember “Now for the leg,” in Scarface? There is a similar scene involving a necklacing that is drawn-out, harrowing, and quite effective. It is this unrelenting sense of intensity and style that define the film, and make it an involving, well-depicted narrative. The script is somewhat less successful, if only because it, much like Natural Born Killers, seems unsure as to how to present our youthful, hedonistic protagonists; are they in the right, and worthy of being rooted for, or are they frivolous, moronic kids willing to kill (and die) for their bodacious blonde white girl? Luckily, that ambiguity does not hurt the momentum of the film until the cop-out ending, where the film suddenly decides it wants to be a satire and not a suspenseful character-based story. The script’s greatest success is creating the ugly, corrupt universe of the current drug climate in the southwest, where everyone, from the cartel to the government to the money launderers, are constantly aware and fearful of the kill-or-be-killed nature of that world. Our leads get away with their trade because they are small, efficient, and adept at covering their tracks, but them being good at their jobs is actually what puts them under the gun to begin with; watching their every effort to get out clean from under the thumb of these “savages” is an interesting microcosm of the current state of vertical integration and its role in eradicating many smaller, “mom and pop” businesses in the U.S. But all headiness aside, the best aspect of the film is it’s sense of energy and brash sensationalism, and that can be directly attributed to Stone showing us his crazy side for the first time in over a decade.
Another cool thing about the film that Stone is probably responsible for is the level of talent in the cast. The three leads are played by hot up-and-comers Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson (I made the argument that the film could’ve been called John Carter and Kick-Ass), and Blake Lively, and only Lively disappoints with her boring, borderline-campy poor-little-rich-girl routine. Johnson is believably conflicted and soft as the idealistic Ben, and Kitsch is natural and effective (for once) as the violent badass Chon. But the real star-power is in the supporting cast: Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, and Demian Bichir. Hayek is sorta the villain, and she bites into the role with aplomb, making a serious case that this smokin’ hot lady is actually the ruthless head of a Mexican drug cartel. Travolta is winning here as a shady government agent, showing way more enthusiasm and genuine pathos than he has in years; I like the idea of Travolta tackling more character roles at this stage of his career, and hopefully he will push himself even further out of his comfort zone in years to come. Demian Bichir is sleazy and memorable as a corrupt lawyer, but nearly all of his scenes are stolen by the cast’s MVP, Benicio Del Toro. As Lado, an enforcer for the cartel, Del Toro reverts to a nearly-feral state, constantly snarling, mumbling threats, and sniffing his surroundings like a junkyard dog in heat. I miss this level of immersion in Del Toro’s performances, and his psychotic-ass performance had me consistently giggling in glee. But everyone’s good (except Blake Lively), and gives the film a sense of mainstream validation that the stylistically free-form, aggressively violent film might not otherwise have.
Recommended to fans of Oliver Stone, violent looks at the drug trade such as Man on Fire or Traffic, or the cast. This is an interesting picture to premiere in the middle of the summer, and it’s being eaten alive by arthouse flicks (To Rome with Love, Moonrise Kingdom) and blockbusters (Amazing Spider-Man, Ted) alike; a shame, for this is a fun ride in the theaters, and hopefully it will get wider attention in the future via Netflix and cable.