U-Turn - *

Oliver Stone returns to directing, and for the first time in a while, he tackles a film without any obvious political agendas. U-Turn is a thriller, based on John Ridley’s novel, Stray Dogs. In it, Oliver Stone proves he’s no Alfred Hitchcock.

Sean Penn stars as Bobby Cooper, a drifter driving across the wastelands of Arizona. Not much is known about him at first, only that he sports a bandaged left hand, and a cocky attitude. However that attitude is about to change when his car breaks down outside the small town of Superior. There he gets enmeshed in the bizzare lives of the dysfunctional locals.

There’s the slow-witted mechanic, Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton), who proves to be a painful thorn in Bobby’s side. Bobby is also distracted by a femme fatale, Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez), whose older husband Jake (Nick Nolte) isn’t pleased with her flirtatious ways. And Bobby unwittingly finds himself inbetween two young lovers: the airbrained Jenny (Claire Danes), and her bullying boyfriend Toby N. Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix), aka T.N.T..

With his various interactions with the locals, a bad day for Bobby turns into the worst day he’s ever had. His life is at stake as he gets hopelessly enmeshed in the morass that is Superior, AZ.

U-Turn is a thriller gone wildly out of control. It has an interesting, if overfamiliar, core, but all of Oliver Stone’s flourishes can’t bring life to this stale film.

Stone’s herky-jerky style, of which he has become enamored of late, is getting old. His use was brilliant in JFK, appropriate for Natural Born Killers, and out of place in Nixon. Here, it smacks of film school pretentiousness. It adds nothing to the film, and distracts heavily. Stone needs to quit relying on this crutch for his films. U-Turn, although non-political, is also needlessly littered with Stone’s pet peeves: Vietnam references, drugs and Native American wisdom.

Sean Penn, who has done some excellent work in his recent films, takes a major misstep here. His character here is unremarkable and uninteresting. Little is known about him at the start, and we learn little throughout. It’s disappointing that Penn couldn’t have added even a little shading to the central character of the film.

The only real plus of the film is its look. Everything in the film seems textured and worn. Some of the characters (Thornton and Nolte in particular) have a unique look, as if they were crafted as part of the sets. However, the film can’t survive on the strength of its look alone.

Lesser directors have made tired genre premises like this one work. Hopefully, the pathetic results of this one will make Oliver Stone stop and modify his pallette once in a while.

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