OUT OF 4
Veteran director and auteur Oliver Stone makes a welcome return to the visceral style that defined his earlier work (Natural Born Killers, U-Turn, Midnight Express) with this lurid and truly dark tale of two young hash dealers and their entanglement with a violent Mexican drug cartel. Based on Don Winslow’s riveting 2010 novel, Stone adapted the book with the author and Shane Salerno into a screenplay that features gore, action and wit with emotional resonance.
The story focuses on Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), two buddies who sell high quality marijuana with THC levels guaranteed to get users thoroughly stoned. . Chon is an ex-Navy SEAL who brought back the seeds from Afghanistan while Ben is a Berkeley trained botanist/businessman who knows how to cultivate these extraordinary plants but would rather run a renewable energy business. Both men participate in a ménage a trois with O (Blake Lively), short for Ophelia, and live a hedonistic lifestyle in an upscale home in Laguna Beach, California. With overtones of Truffaut’s classic Jules and Jim, O, who acts as our narrator, describes her sexual dalliances with Chon as cold metal and Ben as warm wood.
Life maintains an idyllic tone until a video arrives showing Mexican drug workers being decapitated by a chain-saw. The cartel wants in on this “super-weed and they will not take no for an answer. Leading this group of vicious thugs is Elena (pitch- perfect, Salma Hayek) who is sharp, diabolical and emotionally grounded for a leader of a criminal enterprise. Her right hand “savage” is Lado (a sensationally evil, Benicio Del Toro) who can make even cutting a steak seem sinister. Adding to the excitement is a crooked DEA agent named Dennis (a balding, John Travolta) who is shown to be a family man with a twisted moral logic.
DP Dan Mindel accommodates Stone’s desire to mix up visual styles by shooting wide-screen on 35mm with anamorphic lenses. He integrates a vibrant color scheme with occasional flashes of black and white. All of this tends to create a dizzying, hallucinatory mise en scene. This film is a success and thoroughly entertaining. It deserves your attention. The Oliver who authored the classic screenplay for the DePalma’s Scarface is back with a vengeance!