The drug trade has elbowed its way into multiplexes again this week with Savages. Oliver Stone delivers a tale of two young Californians making a tidy living in the pot-growing business until they cross paths with a corrupt DEA agent and a brutal Mexican cartel.

Over the years Stone’s carved a reputation as a rebel-rousing filmmaker unafraid to speak his mind. In a sense it’s odd that he’s chosen the US-Mexico drug trade – a subject ripe for a considered and thoughtful cinematic approach – as the backdrop for a more straightforward multiplex crowd-pleaser. Then again, he started his career by penning the Al Pacino version of Scarface for Brian De Palma, so in a sense it’s a return to his roots.

Still, Stone’s hardly alone in taking dramatic inspiration from the routine barbarism of the North American drug trade. If Movie Land is to be believed the drug business smiles on charisma, casual violence and a warped approach to the notion that hard work can reap vast rewards. It’s a culture of dramatic extremes that looks great on camera.

In recent years Ridley Scott has tackled the heroin trade with American Gangster, where Denzel Washington used his well-worn brand of stern charisma to portray dedicated and disciplined real-life career-criminal Frank Lucas facing off against Russell Crowe’s dishevelled law-enforcer. Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic is probably the highest-profile movie of the past 15 years to seriously analyse America’s Drug War for a multiplex audience. He gives us a multi-stranded tale of lonely desert executions, bourgeois drug abuse and Catherine Zeta-Jones inciting car bombings.

Casting for these stories is becoming something of a routine as well. From True Romance through Blow to Layer Cake the law-dodgers are invariably more colourful than their cop rivals, which is probably why the big names line up to play them. If Hollywood has a Casting Academy, it’ll be up to the Movie Drill Instructor to stand before his bunch of new recruits and lay down the rules:

“Welcome to the Casting Academy, ladies and germs! Drug crime thrillers are the order of the day so I need you to help me out by taking a good look at yourselves. No, please – indulge me! If you have smouldering looks, a sharp sense of style and you seem like you could pass for a total maverick with a craving for power at any cost, then you’ll fit right in as a drug kingpin!

“The benefits are multiple, if somewhat vacuous. You’ll get to live in a sprawling mansion forever guarded by sinister-looking suited mercenaries with ear pieces and shades. Audience sympathy will be largely dictated by the product that got you rich. If you grow marijuana and jump around your mansion or crazily-awesome condo with the rigor of someone who’s just caught a Massive Break, then you’re probably the good guy. You’ll be considered sort-of relatable.

“If you smirk at the wealth, dress like a bit of an idiot, take your girlfriend for granted and deal the hard stuff, then you’re probably the villain.

“If you look at yourself and see an Average Joe who feels more comfortable leading a restrained existence with a hint of domestic dysfunction that all leads to a stress-free retirement where you don’t have to spend your twilight years sleeping within easy reach of an automatic weapon, then you, my friend, are the cop.

“The downsides are a lower operating budget, probably an estranged wife, poor personal hygiene and, perhaps, a slight weight problem. For dramatic purposes, you’ll also be addicted to the day-job. Otherwise you’ll be forever attending your kids’ after-school football matches and you’ll never actually share any screen-time with The Villain.

“On the upside, you have the advantage of moral superiority. Your kids will act as an easy symbol of personal redemption when months of late nights turn into a successful conviction for The Bad Guy. And as we all know, that will make everything Just Fine!”