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Leave This Stone Unturned

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 3, 1997

Within the highly elastic boundaries it takes to appreciate an Oliver Stone movie, "U-Turn" is, for a while, darkly amusing. But along comes the second hour, which insults you for even partially succumbing to the first. Once again, Stone starts a movie only to violate it.

Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) is speeding along an Arizona interstate in his prized Mustang convertible. He's carrying a stash of money he owes to some nasty Russian gangsters in Las Vegas. He's already lost two fingers for not paying them fast enough. He's eager to retire this one before he loses another digit.

That's when his ride blows a radiator hose. Forced to bring his ailing car to a desolate repair shop, he has to spend time in Superior, Ariz., which turns out to be the Tumbleweed Town from Hell.

The car mechanic ("Sling Blade's" Billy Bob Thornton) has bad teeth, coke bottle-thick glasses, an exposed belly and a desire to annoy Bobby. The sheriff (Powers Boothe) has a dark leer and a big shotgun, and keeps patrolling this godforsaken town just looking to bust Bobby for something. An insanely jealous dandy in a cowboy suit (Joaquin Phoenix) keeps picking a fight with him for apparently flirting with his kooky girlfriend (Claire Danes). And it seems like everyone is out to rip him off, beat him up, take him for a ride or just plain push him off a mesa.

More significantly for Bobby, there's Grace (Jennifer Lopez), a sultry temptress who seems interested in a passionate diversion. But when Bobby sweet-talks his way into her bedroom, he meets the iron fist of Jake McKenna (Nick Nolte apparently playing Lee Marvin), who can't stand it when his wife gets up to her teasing games.

It's too late. Bobby's hooked on Grace. And after his money is shot into blood-stained confetti during a store robbery, he's stuck in this town for the immediate future. He owes for that car repair (the bill keeps growing by the hour). The Russians are coming. And Jake is making him a murky, financial offer he's hard-pressed to refuse.

Although many of the performances -- particularly from Nolte, Penn and Thornton -- are enjoyable, the movie plunges so deeply into black comedic hell, all is lost. Sheer nihilism takes over, at the cost of inspiration. The gory violence factor rises. And the movie -- a grotesque, overblown composite of "Body Heat," "After Hours" and John Dahl's "Red Rock West," as conceived by Sergio Leone and Charles Manson -- lies in bloody chunks across the desertscape. Even the vultures turn their heads.

"What kind of horrifying sick [expletive] is coming next?" screams Bobby. The answer is easy, Bobby: More than anybody wants.

U-TURN (R) Contains gruesome violence, profanity, nudity and sex scenes.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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