Oliver Stone once occupied a position in American film that many aspiring filmmakers dream of: he was commercial enough to get big budgets and name actors yet was controversial enough to earn lots of wild publicity and a “bad boy of Hollywood” reputation.  He took advantage of the strange appeal of his persona by cranking out eleven films between 1986 and 1997 (his most bankable period, if you will).  The merits of these films are still debated by critic and punter alike – and some (Heaven And Earth, Nixon) fell flat altogether – but he always gave you something interesting to discuss.

Since that heady era, he’s continued to work in the studio system but both his output and his profitability have slowed down considerably.  Though he still lights up the press on occasion, his work isn’t as focused or inspired – and sometimes it’s downright conventional in films like Any Given Sunday and World Trade Center.  However, he remains defiantly on the cinematic battleground, still slugging away as he looks for a return to those glory days.  Savages is the latest attempt, an ensemble-cast crime opus.  The results show he can muster up the old energy and visual approach but can’t quite recapture the old magic.

Savages was adapted from a novel by Don Winslow and is built around a menage a trois consisting of two marijuana dealing brothers –  sensitive Ben (Aaron Johnson) and ex-military man Chon (Taylor Kitsch) – and their beach bunny muse, O (Blake Lively).  Despite the odd nature of this arrangement, all involved are happy: Ben takes care of the money and lifestyle management, Chon takes care of the security/enforcement stuff and O manages to keep both men happy.

Unfortunately for all there, a snake has crawled into their pothead Garden of Eden.  Mexican drug queen Elena (Salma Hayek) is looking to move into the U.S. drug market and has her sights set on taking a piece of Chon and Ben’s business.  When they decline her offer, she gets her enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap O so she can force a merger.  Chon and Ben make the appearance of playing ball but try to engineer a rescue/revenge operation behind the scenes, pulling their crooked DEA Agent ally Dennis (John Travolta) into the mix.  What they soon discover is that their road to redemption is strewn with double-crosses and other unforeseen problems.

The premise seems to cater to all of Stone’s strengths: there are plenty of characters to play with, a combustible plot with plenty of opportunities for excitement and a drugs and crime milieu that is familiar territory for the former screenwriter of Scarface.  Despite these enticing elements, Savages feels tired and uncertain.  It starts off on the wrong foot by telling the story from O’s point of view: though she is supposedly the glue that keeps the operation together, she’s unfortunately a rather dull and passive character.  To make matters worse, the narration tends to be very on-the-nose and there is way too much of it (it practically swamps the entire first half of the film).

And the further Savages gets, the more muddled it becomes.  The story of Ben and Chon fighting for their lady love – and having to get their hands dirty with real crime – should be the plot’s main thread but it gets buried amongst all the subplots.  Even worse, Ben, Chon and O don’t seem to be really be changed by the events happening around them.  A lot of the crime stuff traffics in stock story beats that have been done better elsewhere, like a confrontation between Lado and Dennis late in the film that plays like an extract from a mid-1990’s Tarantino ripoff.  Worst of all, the ending is spectacularly unsatisfying: without giving it away, let’s just say it seems to be going in a gutsy direction before giving way to the lamest cop-out finale imaginable.

The performances are a mixed bag, mainly because no one here can rise above the stock characterizations they are stuck with.  Johnson and Kitsch do competent work but never really register due to stock characterizations and Lively fares worse because her character is written as an ineffectual, airheaded damsel in distress.  Del Toro and Travolta both play the kind of cliché criminal archetypes that either man could perform in his sleep by this point.  Hayek does the best work overall but her character’s arc fizzles out when she’s faced with a big crisis and… doesn’t do much of anything besides go through the motions.  Kind of like the film itself.

The one element of Savages that really connects is Oliver Stone’s visuals/editing prowess.  Though the first half is burdened with amateurish voiceover, the elliptical flow of images, enhanced by Stone’s customary film stock manipulations, strongly establishes the druggy, blissed-out world the characters initially inhabit.  The camerawork is strong throughout the film and Stone’s gift for montage-as-storytelling keeps the film interesting to look at even when its dramatic core falters.  The overall stylistic effect is reminsicent of U-Turn, perhaps the last really great Oliver Stone film.

Sadly, Savages is no U-Turn.  This story flirts with “high stakes” dramatic moments several times but always pulls its punches, right down to its unearned cop-out finale.  If Stone is going to make a post-glory days comeback then he’s got to find a new subject that gets him as fired up as he once was.  The 1990’s hangover of Savages is just a weak-tea reminder of those glory days.