Very early in this film, a lot of dudes -- extras really -- get themselves liberated from their own heads via cruel Mexican drug cartel chainsawing, and that is the moment you learn that old-school Oliver Stone is back and ready to rumble. No more soft-pedaling political biopics about George W. Bush, this is the blunt-force Stone you know from the '80s and '90s, the director who never met a thematic point he couldn't hammer on a little harder, a female character he couldn't humiliate just a little bit more or violence he couldn't escalate in the service of both.
The world of illegal drug retail sales has changed a little since Stone wrote Scarface. It's both more and less legal now thanks to medical marijuana's cultural foothold, counterpointed by a never-ending, un-winnable War on Drugs and the brutal violence taking place in northern Mexico, parts of which are considered ungovernable. And of those changes, all the director really has to say is that the concentration of power among a few key bosses is more or less reflective of the way international corporations control economic power: they're Wal-Mart, bulldozing whatever gets in their way. Against this backdrop, Stone would like to tell you the story of an unlikely menage-a-trois.
Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson play best friends who've managed to cultivate top-notch Afghanistan weed in Southern California. They've also cultivated a cozy timeshare arrangement with the same girlfriend, Blake Lively. They're the definition of mellow '60s free love, fast-forwarded to 2012. But drugs have been an inherently dangerous way of making a living since forever and into their sunny lifestyle intrudes the jet-black wig of Salma Hayek, a lady-boss as ruthless and brutal as Tony Montana but with better eye-rolling abilities, especially when she has to listen to Blake Lively talk. Hayek's kidnapped Lively in order to force the guys to fold their operation into hers. She's got sleazy Benicio Del Toro and Demian Bechir on her side. Kitsch and Johnson have sleazy John Travolta as a shady DEA agent on theirs. A giant mess ensues.
But what an awesomely entertaining mess it is. Stone, working from a novel by Don Winslow (who co-wrote the screenplay), knows how to steep it all in the crime-sludge of double-crosses and secret informants, kneecappings and counter-kidnappings, then spike it with rueful commentary on American drug policies, somewhat maddening wait-stop-rewind-it dual endings and gauzy sequences of Blake Lively shopping and Blake Lively having sex and Blake Lively twirling her hair and Blake Lively complaining. Bonus: she also narrates the entire movie, employing words like "wargasm" to unintentionally hilarious effect.
You already know what you're getting, of course: machismo and murder and a thesis that's been explored and inverted and trampled and dehydrated to the point of exhaustion and back again. But you also get nuances that escape less detail-oriented filmmakers. His characters are multi-dimensional even when they're forced to recite trite dialogue or enact tired plot mechanics. That makes him his own kind of drug lord of this type of fake narcotic and his product still satisfies, provided your tolerance hasn't built up resistance.