U-Turn (1997)


Oliver Stone may be a unique film maker but he has never been one that I've cared for much.  It is probably the topics of most of his movies.  Often he is championing some conspiracy theory, reminding us about how much he really hates Republicans or reveling in ancient Boomer icons and causes.  The two things he has going for him is that when he truly wants to he knows how to use both the audio and visual mediums of cinema in an amazing fashion and, despite all his pretentions, he knows how to make a b-movie.  He did write the script for Scarface, after all. 

The problem is that he began to revel in much of the praise that was made of his movies in the late 1980s.  Some of it was deserved - Platoon did its best to put viewers in the boots of the soldiers the movie portrayed, while Wall Street managed to balance a number of his worst tendencies to come up with a memorable film that defined what, for a lot of the ex-hippies that had fought the establishment, the '80s had truly become about.  However, and I am probably in the minority on this, his actual peak as an artist came with the restrained Talk Radio and the completely outrageous, bombastic adaptation of Quentin Tarantino's Natural Born Killers.  The former showed that he could make a movie without throwing everything at the screen, while the latter showed that in the right circumstances he could make just the opposite work.  Natural Born Killers often felt that it wasn't even Stone, but that Ken Russell and John Waters had somehow decided to make a movie together over an acid-fueled weekend.

Critics, and Tarantino, hated Natural Born Killers.  For me it was just so completely unrestrained, blunt and insistently trashy that I couldn't help but love every second of it, especially when the unrated version came out on video.  However, instead of continuing in this vein, Stone soon went back to his usual topics with Nixon, but then decided he wanted to do a straight b-movie.  That brings me to U-Turn.

Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) is bleeding, exhausted and scared when his radiator hose blows just as he enters the small town of Superior, Arizona.  Leaving his car with local mechanic Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton) while he goes into town, Bobby encounters a woman named Grace (Jennifer Lopez).  He accompanies her back to her home hoping to have a little fun, but soon finds out her husband, Jake McKenna (Nick Nolte), is pretty much against that.  However, Jake has a proposal for Bobby: kill Grace and earn a little cash.

At first Cooper isn't willing, but after a grocery store robbery leaves him penniless and stranded Bobby takes him up on the offer.  However, Grace has a counter-offer, involving a safe full of money and the key that Jake wears around his neck.  With local sheriff Virgil (Powers Boothe) seemingly getting suspicious of Bobby's presence and Russian mob boss Arkady (Valeriy Nikolaev) sending a henchman to Superior to retrieve money for Cooper's gambling debts he begins to find himself agreeable to just about anything. 

A major problem with U-Turn is that, while Oliver Stone sets out to make a b-movie, he just can't leave well enough alone.  I haven't read John Ridley's book, but it doesn't seem like there's a whole lot here that hasn't been done better in noir films from the 1940s forward and pretty much every character does what they are expected to say and do.  Often a basic story will work when doing exploitation, but unfortunately Stone needs to do many of the same film stock and director tricks that he did with Natural Born Killers.  The problem is, although U-Turn occasionally has some humor that works, it's not meant to be some sort of filthy surrealist trash, but rather a movie where the revelations and violence unfold without a lot of different tricks. 

It is almost as if Oliver Stone realized once the movie was done that he had a half-baked thriller and tried to dress it up a bit.  Jennifer Lopez is famously iffy on the acting side where Sean Penn, like the character he portrays, appears to want to be anywhere other than Superior - where they actually filmed it after dressing it up to make it look a bit more alive than it was at the time.  The fact that it was filmed in Superior, one of the more memorable places I had photographed in the 1990s, was pretty much the reason I took the time to see it in the theater in 1997, and until moving to that town never really thought I'd watch it again.  That said, the most memorable things, other than the town, were Billy Bob Thornton as Darrell, a greasy mechanic that is never as dumb as he lets on, and Jon Voight playing a blind Navajo Vietnam veteran.  

Which brings me to another problem with this film.  The Prophecy, a film with quite a lesser budget, was filmed in the same town in 1993.  Superior is near the San Carlos Reservation, which is for the Apache Tribe, and about an hour from Gila River, which is Tohono O'Odham.  Gregory Widen was able to get a Native American actor to play an important role in his film.  Jennifer Lopez is supposed to be half-indigenous (she is of Puerto Rican descent, and that New York accent is prominent here) and Voight is also from the East Coast.  Putting aside his "Indians are magic" point of view he's had since at least The Doors, Stone could have at least found actors with Native blood to play the characters. 

It still would not have overcome the fact that his portrayal of Superior, a largely Latin town, as a haven for rednecks (two played to the hilt by Claire Danes and Joaquin Phoenix, and once again making me wonder how much Stone is influenced by John Waters) didn't exactly go over well when the movie came out.  While the plot is overly convoluted for something so trite it just leaves one picking apart every aspect of the film rather than watching it, from the horrible cut shots to the angles to the fades and the fact that, despite the set dressing, I don't think Superior has had a dirt main street since the early part of the 20th century no matter how bad things got. 

One good thing did come from this movie, however.  Bill Holmquist, a Mesa resident at the time, was the construction coordinator on the movie, which meant it was his job to make Superior look the way Oliver Stone thought it should look.  Main Street was largely abandoned in 1996 due to the mine closure and some shady real estate speculation, but in doing enough renovation in order to make it look like a living, breathing (albeit quite eccentric) town, he fell in love with it and started renovating what he could for real.  So, while U-Turn is a terrible film in almost every way, shape or form, it at least led to the beginnings of the revival of the town that every character in the film was so desperate to escape. 

U-Turn (1997)
Time: 125 minutes
Starring: Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Powers Boothe
Director: Oliver Stone



 

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