"Salvador," Oliver Stone's drama based on the recent strife in that country, has an irresistible brassiness, a swing-at-the-moon quality -- it's big and loud and bold, all primary colors, and it has more energy than any 10 films this year.

Written by director Stone and Richard Boyle, "Salvador" is based on Boyle's escapades as a photojournalist. As it begins, Boyle (James Woods) has hit a hard-luck endcol streak -- his landlord evicts him, his wife leaves him, and his money runs out. A hustler whose stream of patter could talk the ear off a brass monkey and oil it at the same time, Boyle heads for the latest hot spot -- El Salvador, where the civil war is getting nasty -- with a camera, a sidekick named Dr. Rock (James Belushi) and a beat-up Mustang convertible nicknamed "the Deathmobile."

Boyle and Rock, a disc jockey, cruise down through Mexico in a haze of booze, pills, reefer and hip one-liners ("The best thing about Latin women is that they don't speak English"). Part of what's attractive about "Salvador" is the way this post-Haight-Ashbury, post-Gonzo life style shatters against civil war. The burnouts are disoriented in a country that is, literally, burned out; their affectation of craziness is a luxury a really crazy country can't afford.

Rock keeps to his straight line (for him, Salvador is just a kind of barroom brawl), but Boyle struggles to go beyond that -- he's a habitual jerk, but the country peels away his hustle. The emotional thrust of the movie comes in Boyle's odyssey from a sleazy operator to a sleazy operator with a conscience, and it's because he remains distasteful that the conversion carries such oomph. Boyle embitters what might otherwise be sentimental about "Salvador," makes it believable.

It's a terrific role for Woods, a nervous, fast-talking actor with a long, pockmarked face and shrewd eyes. Woods' work is chaotic and undisciplined, and in another context, he might seem hit or miss; but his anything-goes style melds perfectly with what's messy and lunatic about "Salvador." Stone isn't interested in polish, but in authenticity.

In "Salvador," the plot doesn't develop -- things happen. Nuns are killed. Archbishop Romero is killed. A boy gets drunk and says something about the death squads, and by night he's in jail. The camera bumps around (mostly, it's hand-held), the image is grainy, and composer Georges Delerue's lurid theme, a film noir pastiche of blaring horns and machine gun drums, emerges periodically to pump things up. The movie gives you the jitters.

Belushi gives a believable performance as a drug fiend; he doesn't romanticize Rock -- he's mostly brooding, sluggish and depressed. John Savage turns in a nice cameo as a mystically inclined Newsweek photographer in search of the perfect shot; and Michael Murphy is fine as the ambassador (although the role is a bit Michael Murphyish).

When you say Stone writes with his heart, you really mean it -- you can imagine the script of "Salvador" smeared on butcher paper. He's the kind of florid writer who would have flourished on the social issues pictures Hollywood made in the '30s, and at times, it gets him in trouble. When the movie starts to speechify, he's lost; the Big Speech in "Salvador" is a lulu, littered with phrases like "this planet," "just society" and "in the name of human decency."

But if Stone's metier is a brand of left-wing machismo that's nearly extinct, it's also a style you wish were around more these days, especially when it results in movies like "Salvador." You might think it's preachy; you might think it's messy; but when you leave, you won't doubt that you've seen a real movie.

Salvador, opening today at the Circle MacArthur, is rated R and contains graphic violence, nudity, profanity and sexual situations.