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  [rating: 2½ of 4 stars]movie review by Gary Johnson

Oliver Stone movies tend to be events. With movies such as JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Born on the Fourth of July to his credit, each Stone movie creates a buzz of anticipation. However, his newest movie, U-Turn, finds Stone backing away from big, important subject matter in favor of a bizarre, Twilight Zone-style tale of confusion, deception, corruption, and seduction. U-Turn weaves leisurely-paced character encounters with hyperactive editing--sort of like Stone and his crew smoked plenty of peyote between scenes.

Filmed with claustrophobic close-ups as the camera swoops in on subjects at knee-high level, U-Turn gives us half-eaten coyotes, smashed cats, sweat-drenched foreheads, and grease-smeared stomachs. In short, Stone gives us one of the grimiest, most grotesque environments ever committed to film.

This is the environment that small-time hood Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) stumbles into. "What do you do?" someone asks him. "Whatever pays best," Bobby says. He's in debt for $30,000 to a bookie who has already used pruning shears to slice off three fingers from Bobby's left hand. He's driving through the desert when his radiator hose bursts. He pulls over to the side of the road and sees two signs: one says "U TURN OK" (and thus the title of the movie) and the other says "SUPERIOR, 3 MILES." While his car spews a cloud of smoke and steam, Bobby pulls into Superior, and thus begins his nightmarish descent into a world where everything goes wrong: "It's just like a town, only uglier," he says.

Jon Voight (yes, that's Jon Voight!) and
Sean Penn in
(©1997 TriStar Pictures. All rights reserved.)

Among the characters that he meets, Bobby finds a beautiful half-breed woman, Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez), who wiggles her shapely butt and immediately enslaves Bobby; an unscrupulous real-estate baron, Jake McKenna (Nick Nolte), who with his grizzled beard and yellowish teeth resembles an alcohol-drenched John Huston; a slow-talking sheriff (Powers Boothe) with secrets of his own; a bubbly, dim-witted young woman, Jenny (Claire Danes)--"Why doesn't Patsy Cline make any new records?"--who's just itchin' for someone to take her out of Superior; Jenny's absurdly jealous boyfriend Toby N. Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix) with the letters "TNT" shaved into the back of his head; a blind Indian (Jon Voight) who coaxes Bobby to buy him sodas; and the greasiest auto mechanic ever to grace a movie screen (played by Billy Bob Thornton)--"When it's a hot one I don't even like to get out of bed of course when it's cold I don't either."

Bobby hopes to get his 1964½ Mustang convertible quickly repaired so he can get back on the road, but Darrell the mechanic has other plans. While he waits for Darrell to fix the car, Bobby becomes entangled with the marital woes of the McKennas, as Jake McKenna wants his wife dead--"I hate tolerating the little games she plays!"--and urges Bobby to do the killing: "You're a man without scruples," Jake says to Bobby. "I could smell it on you."

Billy Bob Thornton, Jennifer Lopez, and
Powers Boothe in
(©1997 TriStar Pictures. All rights reserved.)

Oliver Stone captures this absurd mix of characters with burnt out visuals that appear to be baking in the unmerciful Arizona sun. As dust swirls down the streets of Superior and settles into every crack, Stone creates an atmosphere thick with spastic twitches and lurid, James M. Cain-influenced plot twists. You'll find murder, adultery, incest, and just about every other sin imaginable. In short, this material would be perfect for Oliver Stone--if it were thematically significant in some way. But Stone seems out of his element in U-Turn. This is the land of David Lynch, a director who knows how to tweak our fears with paranoia-drenched visuals and absurdist comedy (as in Twin Peaks). While Stone does supply some impressive visuals, he's less adept at comedy. He allows scenes to drag out well beyond their welcome.

The screenplay itself is vintage "B" movie material. Back in the '40s, U-Turn might have resulted in a crisp 70-minute noirish melodrama, such as Detour or Stranger On the Third Floor. However, in Stone's hands the movie drags out to over two hours. Significantly, in the movie's bleak, blood-drenched ending, U-Turn begins to resemble Duel in the Sun, producer David O. Selznick's ludicrous saga of "lust in the dust."

I'm glad that Stone tackled a smaller-sized project with U-Turn. Frankly, his big, important movies have usually struck me as overrated and bombastic. However, U-Turn illustrates that Stone knows nothing about subtly. In U-Turn he wields a meat-cleaver-like approach, bludgeoning everything within swinging distance.


Go to the U-Turn Web site

A TriStar Pictures Presentation

A Phoenix Pictures Production


Bobby CooperSean Penn
Jake McKennaNick Nolte
Grace McKennaJennifer Lopez
Sheriff PotterPowers Boothe
JennyClaire Danes
Toby N. TuckerJoaquin Phoenix
DarrellBilly Bob Thornton
Blind ManJon Voight
FloJulie Hagerty
EdBo Hopkins
Bus Station ClerkLaurie Metcalf
Girl in Bus StationLiv Tyler
Directed byOliver Stone
Produced byDan Halstead
Clayton Townsend
Screenplay byJohn Ridley, based on his novel Stray Dogs
Director of PhotographyRobert Richardson
Production DesignerVictor Kempster
Edited byHark Corwin
Thomas J. Nordberg
Music byEnnio Morricone
Costume DesignerBeatrix Aruna Pasztor
Co-ProducerRichard Rutowski
Executive ProducerJohn Ridley
Associate ProducerBill Brown
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