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USA 1997
Directed by
Oliver Stone
125 minutes
Rated R

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

U Turn

If Hunter S. Thompson had reworked John Dahl's Red Rock West (1993) it might have come out like Oliver Stone’s stuck-in-a-one-horse-town neo-noir thriller.

Sean Penn plays Bobby Cooper, a small-time gambler fleeing his debts. On his way to Vegas through the Arizona desert the radiator hose in his '64-and-a-half Mustang convertible bursts and he is forced to stop off in the dust-bowl hamlet of Superior. From his first encounter with the only mechanic (Billy Bob Thornton) in town Bobby manages to dig himself deeper and deeper in an unholy mess of lust, murder and betrayal

U-turn is a hip, gallows-worthy black comedy served up with lashings of visual panache by Stone and his DOP Robert Richardson. The objective appears to be to have as much fun with the genre as possible. On the one hand this means a kind of fancy dress party for a virtually unrecognizable Thornton, as the “in-bred” mechanic, a definitely unrecognizable Jon Voight as a blind Indian, Nick Nolte as Jake, a sadistic realtor, Claire Danes as a ditzy backwater nymphet and Joaquin Phoenix as her aggressively nervy boyfriend.  On the other, the plot twists and turns mercilessly (both original story, a novel entitled ‘Stray Dogs’ and script were by John Ridley, who also wrote the original story of Three Kings, 1999) and Stone loads the film with all kinds of visual flourishes that suggest a kind of primordial inevitability to the film's dark lesson, which is, as Voight’s oracular vagrant puts it: ''Human beings ain't just human, you know. They got animals livin' inside them too'').

To some extent however the playfully tawdry hyperbole works against the film's integrity as a dark morality play.  In this respect Jennifer Lopez as the femme fatale, Grace, although sexy is too improbably so for this desert backwater and as an actress she suggests none of the ambiguity which is needed to make her role, and thus Bobby's self-destructive trajectory, effective Nicolas Cage was far more believable in Red Rock West). Even Penn seems a tad too worldly to get himself embroiled in such a farrago of small-town desperation. And the fact that there is no chemistry between them doesn’t help. There are also a couple of questions left unanswered - what happened to the gorilla sent by the Mob boss to retrieve Bobby? And how come he never caught the bus out of town? (the point of an otherwise irrelevant scene in which Liv Tyler briefly appears). And that's not raising the issue of why Grace doesn't just drive her Jeep out of town. With or without Jake's money a girl with her talents would have landed on her feet in no time.

The score is by Ennio Morricone although to be honest I can’t recall it but some of the pop songs used add nicely to the mood.

All up U-turn is a fun little film, a trashy detour amongst Stone's more lofty outings.




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