U Turn

U Turn
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenplay: John Ridley (based on his novel "Stray Dogs")
Stars: Sean Penn (Bobby Cooper), Jennifer Lopez (Grace McKenna), Nick Nolte (Jake McKenna), Powers Boothe (Sheriff Potter), Billy Bob Thornton (Darrell), Jon Voight (Blind Indian), Claire Danes (Jenny), Joaquin Phoenix (Toby N. Tucker)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1997
Country: USA
Oliver Stone's "U Turn" is an unfortunate step backwards for one of American's finest filmmakers. In an attempt to make what he termed "a small movie," Stone proved that his position in the cinematic world is reliant on his making films that challenge, provoke, and incite. If "U Turn" had been made by another director, I would have seen it differently. But knowing the Stone's caustic talents and extreme potential, I can only see it as a mostly wasted effort in exploiting a well-tread genre.

"U Turn" is best described as a contemporary Western film noir. It takes place in the tiny, dusty, sun-drenched Superior, Arizona, a ramshackle town about fifty miles from nowhere. Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn), a small-time gambler and con man on his way to California to pay off a $30,000 debt, has the misfortune of being stranded in Superior for a day when his '64 Mustang overheats from a busted radiator hose.

He leaves the car with Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton), a sleazy auto mechanic who looks like he just took a dip in a drum of used motor oil. After going into town, Bobby runs across a mysterious, blind Indian (an unrecognizable Jon Voight), and is seduced by Grace (Jennifer Lopez), the town's sexy femme fatale. The seduction is interrupted when her gruff husband, Jake (Nick Nolte) barges in and breaks it up.

In a series of coincidental events that are reminiscent of Martin Scorese's' "After Hours," Bobby finds himself robbed of all his money and trapped in Superior because he can't come up with $150 to pay Darrell for the new radiator hose. In a last ditch effort to get the money (a flashback shows us he's already lost two fingers for not being timely enough), he takes Jake up on an earlier offer to kill Grace. This scenario doesn't last long, and soon Bobby and Grace are teaming up to kill Jake instead (a plot development reminiscent of 1993's "Red Rock West"). And if that isn't enough of a problem, Bobby is constantly being stalked by a psychotic hick (Joaquin Phoenix) who thinks Bobby is trying to "make time" with his ditsy girlfriend (Claire Danes).

"U Turn" was scripted by John Ridley from his novel, "Stray Dogs." The story of Ridley and Stone fighting over which gets to come out first, the book or the movie, and how Ridley was banned from the set, is far more interesting than anything that happens on screen. Yep, that's right: Oliver Stone actually managed to make a boring movie. It's not that nothing exciting happens in "U Turn." It's filled with fistfights, shootings, explicit sex, attempted murder, a robbery, and a whole lot more. The problem is that none of the characters are worth caring about, so none of it really matters.

The actors try their best, but the movie has no interesting characters, only caricatures and worn-out stereotypes. With an A-list of actors, the movie has only two really memorable performances, Thornton and Phoenix, and both of them are rather small. Thornton's greasy, backward mechanic is the only surprising character because he seems like a dumb hick on the outside, but he spends most of the film getting the better of Penn's manipulative con man. Phoenix, last seen as the clean-cut Doug in "Inventing the Abbotts," makes Toby N. Tucker a hilarious spoof of all those guys we knew in high school who wanted to beat up anything for the sake of looking tough.

What Stone has done is essentially make "Natural Born Killers" without a message. "U Turn" was filmed by Stone and his long-time cinematographer Robert Richardson, in that same kinetic, scratchy style that utilizes odd camera angles, sound manipulation, quick editing, different film speeds, and a wide variety of film stock. In "NBK," those technical aspects were the perfect avenue to satirize contemporary media overload and the country's obsession with violence. In "JFK," those techniques were used to show different variations of the same event from a wide range of viewpoints. Here, it's all flash and smoke with no underlying weight. Unlike every film Stone has made since 1986's Oscar-winner "Platoon," this movie is all style and no substance.

The story wants to weave a tangled web, but it mostly meanders. Everything is so eccentric and off-center right from the very start, that it has no chance to gain momentum. "U Turn" has been likened to an episode of "The Twilight Zone," but I have to disagree. In "The Twilight Zone," the momentum was often built by allowing the audience to ride along a character's slow realization that he is caught somewhere strange. Everything seems fairly normal at first, but then the situation begins to stack up. In "U Turn," we know right off the bat that we're way off the main road, and the only thing that could shock us by the end is if Bobby found out he had wandered into Hades.

As it turns out, the film relies on boring shock secrets about incest and betrayal. So what. To me, it seems like every character in the film is the logical result of incest, so where's the surprise? Unfortunately, there is none.

©1997 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2)

James Kendrick

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