EntertainmentMoviesOliver StoneDeathJennifer LopezBilly Bob ThorntonJames Robert Thompson

Friday October 3, 1997

     "U-Turn" is a new turn for director Oliver Stone, but otherwise it's awfully familiar. The latest in an unending series of bleakly comic, nihilistic neo-noirs to reach the screen, "U-Turn's" story of a bad day in an Arizona hell invests a lot of skill and style in a trifling tale. So it manages to sporadically amuse even while it's wasting your time.
     Like the often-filmed Jim Thompson novels ("The Grifters," "The Getaway," "After Dark, My Sweet," among others) of which it is a knockoff, "U-Turn's" John Ridley script places a drifting stranger who thinks he's wised up in a situation that runs the gamut from garden-variety criminality to the purest evil.
     After a run of thematically ambitious films like "JFK" and "Nixon," Stone probably turned to this smaller-scale project (shot in 42 days for $20 million, which passes for down and dirty in Hollywood) as a change of pace, the way someone might pick up a thriller at an airport newsstand.
     But while a film like "L.A. Confidential" feels like its rethought and re-imagined genre material, "U-Turn," despite entertaining diversions like amusing acting and jazzy visuals, merely walks where others have trod before. It's also difficult to shake the curious feeling that Stone, who satirized similar material so effectively in "Natural Born Killers," is now determined to present it straight.
     Driving a red 1964 Mustang convertible though the high lonesome deserts of the American Southwest, protagonist Bobby Cooper (a controlled Sean Penn) isn't planning to stop in Superior, Ariz. But then his engine blows up on him and there he is in the worst possible town to stumble onto unawares.
     For Superior is wall-to-wall with trailer trash grotesques, devious deviants capable of running a putative tough guy like Cooper around in circles, working their will on him and catching him up in their contagious bad dreams.
     Guys like Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton), the shifty, grease-encrusted mechanic who takes a stab at fixing Bobby's car. Or the blind man (an all-but-unrecognizable Jon Voight) who dispenses unfathomable advice while looking after a dog who may or may not be dead. And don't forget the local teenagers, the too-flirty Jenny (Claire Danes) and her pugnacious boyfriend Toby N. Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix). "People call me TNT," he glowers at Bobby, who can't help but respond: "That's not very imaginative."
     Director Stone has obviously gotten a kick out of dealing with this impressive collection of twisted psyches. And the performers themselves, especially the teen lovers, offer periodic dark chuckles as they go about what passes for their daily lives. It's no surprise that Bobby asks at one point: "Is everyone in this town on drugs?"
     More central to the plot are "U-Turn's" fun couple, Grace and Jake McKenna. With close-cropped hair and a grizzly beard that bring to mind John Huston's devious power broker in "Winter Kills," Nick Nolte is wickedly effective as real estate developer Jake, believable when he tells Bobby he can literally smell a lack of scruples on a man.
     There is also, to borrow another Jim Thompson title, a hell of a woman in town, Jake's wife Grace McKenna. Passionately played by Jennifer Lopez, Grace is the archetypal noir femme fatale, sultry, scheming and impossible for men to resist. She's a good part of the reason Bobby stays in town longer than he plans.
     Working as usual with virtuoso director of photography Robert Richardson, production designer Victor Kempster and editors Hank Corwin and Thomas J. Nordberg, Stone has given "U-Turn" the jazzy and jumpy look of a cinematic hallucination, which ought to have been protection enough against boredom.
     But the film's look and its acting, clever as they are, feel like window dressing on a film whose plotting is overly familiar and as obvious as an early shot of a buzzard and a wolf gnawing at the entrails of a tasty piece of road kill.
     Because the exposition is so familiar and pro forma, "U-Turn," despite its notable diversions, is marked by a lack of narrative drive, an inability to involve us in what will happen to its characters. It's so empty emotionally it's difficult to see what the point is, unless it's the celebration of emptiness, an aim that has become so familiar recently it hardly seems worth the trouble everyone has gone to.

U-Turn, 1997. R, for strong violence, sexuality and language. Phoenix Pictures presents an Illusion Entertainment Group production, in association with Clyde Is Hungry Films, released by TriStar Pictures. Director Oliver Stone. Producers Dan Halsted, Clayton Townsend. Executive producer John Ridley. Screenplay John Ridley, based on his novel "Stray Dogs." Cinematographer Robert Richardson. Editors Hank Corwin, Thomas J. Nordberg. Costumes Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Music Ennio Morricone. Production design Victor Kempster. Art director Dan Webster. Set decorator Merideth Boswell. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes. Sean Penn as Bobby Cooper. Nick Nolte as Jake McKenna. Jennifer Lopez as Grace McKenna. Billy Bob Thornton as Darrell. Powers Boothe as Sheriff Virgil Potter. Claire Danes as Jenny. Joaquin Phoenix as Toby N. Tyler. Jon Voight as Blind Man.

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