(director/writer: Oliver Stone; screenwriters: Shane Salerno/from the novel by Don Winslow; cinematographer: Dan Mindel; editors: Stuart Levy/Alex Marquez/Joe Hutshing; music: Adam Peters; cast: Blake Lively(Ophelia), Taylor Kitsch (Chon), Aaron Johnson (Ben), Salma Hayek (Elena), John Travolta (Dennis, DEA Agent), Benicio Del Toro (Lado), Joaquín Cosio (El Azul), Demián Bichir(Alex), Sandra Echeverría(Magda); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Moritz Borman/Eric Kopeloff; Universal; 2012)

… exciting by being bloody almost throughout.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Oliver Stone (“Natural Born Killers”/”JFK”/”Nixon”)and writer Shane Salerno adapt Don Winslow’s dark crime thriller best-selling novel about peaceful marijuana dealers in Laguna Beach forced into a drug war over turf with the ruthless Mexican Baja cartel, as that scenario gives Stone a chance to say many times in the film that both the hippie pot dealers and the brutal drug cartel are savages. Good storytelling, good acting (a terrific sinister one by Benicio Del Toro, a hammy but effective one by Salma Hayek and a diverting sly comical one by John Travolta; while a more than serviceable one by the three newbie leads) and good visuals make this bleak pic, that relishes in torture, rape, decapitations, car bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and a man torched to death after doused with gasoline, into an entertaining though rather sleazy neo-noir pulp movie. It sends the cynical message that when push comes to shove we all have the ability to behave like savages. Shooting for a twist ending, after many double-crosses among the criminal characters, Stone nearly kills his good work in the last minutes by unnecessarily filming two different endings. The first is the better ending that’s bloody and pessimistic like in the book, and the second is an absurd amoral happy fantasy ending that Stone tacked on for whatever reason. But if you can ignore that misstep, this is a gripping film that keeps things exciting by being bloody almost throughout and amusingly in an ironic way gets off calling out pretentious southern California hipsters as hypocrites.

The blonde beach bunny hottie Ophelia (Blake Lively) prefers being called O, and after a screwed-up childhood as the ignored poor little rich girl saddled with an uncaring mom she now basks in luxury and sexual liberation by being the love object of two men. O shares her love equally with successful high-end independent cannabis drug dealer partners Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), who keep things mellow in business and in their private life. The men are childhood friends, with Chon a former Navy Seal who served in Iraq and Afghanistan andBen a philanthropist, pacifist, hippie, Buddhist and Berkeley drop-out who majored in business and botany. The three are living an idyllic California Dreaming hedonist life in Laguna Beach, residing together in a luxurious mountain-top home overlooking the ocean. Things immediately change in paradise when the boys turn down a business offer by the expansion-minded Mexican cartel run by drug lord widow Elena (Salma Hayek), who suffers because she has a daughter who won’t talk to her (Sandra Echeverría) and because of business woes needs to take over weaker independent drug businesses across the border after the cartels at home have weakened her.

As a result, before the good guy druggie trio could skip town to Indonesia, O is kidnapped by the cartel’s menacing head henchman enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro) and O’s life is threatened unless the deal goes through. When the boys determine you can’t make a deal with the savage cartel they turn for help to corrupt DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta), who is paid handsomely to let them run their business without interference from the law, to give them info on the cartel so they can strike back at them as violently as possible in a military way to show they mean business.

The trio think of themselves as populist crime heroes like Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid and Etta, but that’s all vanity as they prove to be a self-absorbed lot and hardly worthy of our sympathy. The ones who survive in this venal world of drug dealing and enforcement are viewed by the filmmaker as the ones who are the most slippery. It’s one of those heartless films that goes out of its way to say we shouldn’t care about such phonies, no matter how much love they profess, because there’s something wrong with the twisted pipe dream they are selling. If the film has an edge to it, it seems to be in indirectly advocating that marijuana be legalized to take the criminal element out of it and put the money into the hands of honest farmers and allow the government to collect taxes.