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'U-Turn': Stone Hits a Dead End

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 3, 1997

So many great directors have made noir films it's no surprise that when Oliver Stone set out along that path, he studied someone's work. He could have picked Billy Wilder, Anthony Mann, Delmer Daves, Orson Welles, even Alfred Hitchcock.

So whom did he pick?

Why, he picked himself.

No wonder it's called "U-Turn." Seemingly about something else -- you know, the human condition -- it hangs a fast 180 and turns out to be only about its maker. Here's what it has to do with that tough, gritty, raw world of film noir and its swanky dames and doomed suckers: nothing. Here's what it's about: the famous Stone style.

He takes what looks to be a serviceably nasty yarn about a drifter encountering deceit and murder in a small town (noir subset A-53-d/II, with such classic examples as "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Red Rock West") and gives it the Big Fat Over-Produced and Over-Directed Oliver Stone treatment from such recent works as "JFK" and "Natural Born Killers": the jangling cutting rhythms, the startlingly abstracted close-ups, the under-cranking for the illusion of excess speed, the alternation of film stocks. But none of this expresses anything about the mental state of his characters: It's just jazzy styling that reminds you of the key fact that this is an Oliver Stone Film. It also blows 94 minutes of material out to a super-indulgent 2 hours and 10 minutes of visual bombast.

Sean Penn plays a sleazy hipster-gambler named Bobby Cooper who owes 30 grand to the Russian mob in Vegas. Somehow, he's raised it (ask no questions) and is heading across the desert to pay off when a radiator hose in his '64 Mustang blows. He heads down a dirt road to the nearest burg, the scruffy town of Superior, Ariz., where the word superior could only describe the level of decadence, squalor and genetic mutation. This is the brackish backwater of the human gene pool, the town that evolution forgot.

Quickly, Bobby encounters the first of the film's nearly endless supply of superfluous characters, a grease-slathered mechanic named Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton) who rips him off while modeling a set of teeth that appear to be the petri dish for the next generation of bubonic plague. Stranded, Bobby wanders into town where a chance encounter with bad guys in a convenience store gets his 30K turned to confetti by a shotgun-wielding clerk, until at long last we get to what could be called the first plot point.

Independently, he meets each of the nasty McKennas, first young, svelte, sexy, sullen Grace (Jennifer Lopez) and then her older husband, salty, crusty, deranged Jake (Nick Nolte, on a starvation diet to turn his neck into the cords of an Irish harp). Each is a cliche so pure they could come out of a film noir do-it-yourself kit: She's the femme fatale, with the body that says yes, the eyes that say now and the hips that say anything you want, and the mouth that says, but first, you have to do me a favor. He's the corrupt town boss, the insane millionaire who can no longer satisfy his wife. Each spouse attempts to bribe the none-too-bright-or-moral Bobby into killing the other.

As it turns out, this is the same situation as in John Dahl's far superior "Red Rock West" of 1993, with Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, Lara Flynn Boyle and J.T. Walsh. (Even the cast was better!) Of course one great merit of Dahl's film was not merely its mordant wit and oddball characters, but its speed. It whistled along, memorably.

"U-Turn" creaks, pausing for the director's self-infatuation at every stop in the road. Its lethargy almost totally destroys its sense of play or parody and it is further clotted by endless, preening turns from hip stars like Jon Voight as a blind seer, Claire Danes as a strumpety teenager, Joaquin Phoenix as her jealous boyfriend, and Powers Boothe as a drunken sheriff, each under the impression that they've been offered a chance to save their careers. The film has no discipline, but that's okay because it has no suspense, either.

This is a Stone flaw; he seems to have lost contact with the part of him that once told great stories (as in "Salvador" or "Platoon"). It's as if the ideological burden of his last "big" pictures with their grand messages of social importance ground the tale-teller in him into the dust, until the simple requirements of getting an audience to wonder what happens next were beyond him. Even a film like "Natural Born Killers" (also neo-noir in aspiration), conceptually a violent chase movie, wasn't particularly fast-moving or suspenseful. So it is with "U-Turn," which only manages to remain watchable by virtue of a fairly consistent strain of black humor.

But there's no one in the movie you care about, not because the characters are immoral but because they're uninteresting. The movie has got to get you to invest in Penn's Bobby, but he's a self-serving swine, ready to sell out anybody at the making of a fist. Even the famous killers in noir, like John Garfield in "Postman" or Jimmy Cagney in "White Heat," made you care about them, even as they doomed themselves. Penn is just annoying.

U-Turn is rated R for extreme violence and sexual situations.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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