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The politically divisive, sensationalistic cultural provocateur Oliver Stone has made some impressive pictures and a few rather off-putting ones. I like his political gauntlet movies even as I feel that his input muddies, not clarifies, the flow of discourse on some important subjects. His obnoxious, revolting Natural Born Killers can't exactly be called socially constructive, and I think confirms him as an old-fashioned barnstorming opportunist. From the outside, with its dynamite all-star cast and quality production collaborators, 1997's U Turn looks like a winner. Stone has what it takes to make a great neo-noir thriller. There's plenty to admire here, but the script is far too intent on putting 'Mean and Nasty' into every scene, in capital letters.
Cheap hood Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) has already lost two fingers to the Russian Mafia. Instead of paying up on his gambling debts hops in his red convertible Mustang and heads west. His radiator gives out in Superior, a tiny Arizona desert town inhabited solely by human vermin (editorial opinion). The disgustingly non-hygienic mechanic Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton) squeezes Bobby for hundreds of dollars, even after two holdup men blow away his satchel of cash. Bobby is enticed toward a bedroom by local beauty Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez), but she's just trying to find somebody to knock off her horribly domineering husband Jake (Nick Nolte), a real estate agent. The frightening Jake turns around and offers to pay Bobby to kill Grace, as he's sick of her catting around. At the local diner Bobby runs afoul of belligerent young Toby Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix), who seems intent on killing Bobby just for looking at his trampy girlfriend, Jenny (Claire Danes). With no money and the Russian Mafia closing in, Bobby can find no way to get out of town. Sheriff Potter (Powers Boothe) is beginning to get suspicious as Bobby crisscrosses the streets, collecting cuts and bruises as the day goes on. As time runs out, Jake McKenna's offer begins to seem like a good course of action.
If Franz Kafka were a fan of hardboiled lowlife pulp fiction and had absolutely no other way of making a living, he might have written this screenplay. The utterly joyless narrative sees the unworthy Bobby Cooper plagued by the horrible denizens of a town that qualifies as ground zero for a nuclear test. Ever been in the desert of Arizona or New Mexico? If you don't come on like the punk Bobby Cooper, most everybody is friendly. Just avoid political discussion.
With his rotten teeth and predatory instincts Darrell is the auto repair ambush specialist from hell. Sheriff Potter's upstanding exterior hides the heart of a psychopath. Unhappy hubby Jake McKenna is a monstrous murderer & incestuous child molester rolled into one -- but with a folksy hello if he wants something from you. Creepy Toby has his name shave-written into his hair; he and his jailbait girl friend would be a minor annoyance, except that he's as violent as the scorpions Oliver Stone's editors keep cutting to.
The scorpion is most closely associated with Grace McKenna, one of those pulp paperback killer dames that invariably attract confused neo-noir heroes like flies. Cruising main street in a tight red dress, she soon has Bobby, bandaged hand and all, holding up her derrière as straddles a sofa to hang some drapes. The tease factor is on par with Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot, without as much outright nudity. Jake storms in like Papa Bear, frothing at the mouth, setting Coop up for his first beating of the day. He barely escapes a robbery that produces two shot-gunned bodies. Later beatings at the hands of Jake and Toby are enough to put anybody in a hospital for a week.
The skilled Sean Penn makes all this nonsense watchable, while Nick Nolte is the unbearable experience Stone wants him to be, sort of a Sterling Hayden-John Huston-Wolverine mix bursting with madness and evil. After playing an unbroken line of sick creeps for fifteen years, Powers Boothe is almost benign as a merely psychotic sheriff.
Stone's modus operandi is to take your typical southwestern noir potboiler and turn all the dials up past the safety mark. Every character is an exaggeration of an exaggeration, as if they all took PCP before being told to behave as badly as they could. As Jake and Grace add more awful back-stories to their resume -- torture, rape, incest -- that angle of the story gets out of hand as well. The movie's too ridiculous to take seriously on any level, including enjoyment. There are no characters to speak of, just noir archetypes overstated beyond belief. After the first beating and personal betrayal, Bobby Cooper is an idiot to continue to talk to any of these people -- the right thing to do is carry a raised tire iron, threatening to strike. Instead he continues to negotiate with them, to trust them as individuals.
If the idea of a dry-gulching, all-the-world's-a-cesspool version of No Exit appeals, Oliver Stone has the perfect movie for you. He certainly carries it out with style. The camerawork is excellent. The editing is lively, if also hyped with a lot of jerky jumpy flashbacks. I'd certainly call the acting effective, all except for Jon Voight's homeless and blind Main Street Indian, a pretentious bore that of course dispenses oddball wisdom and weird 'insightful' observations. The shoeshine guy from the old TV spoof Police Squad! would be a better fit. Also contributing colorful bits are Julie Hagerty as a waitress apparently modeled on a gum-chewing gal from an old '70s TV show. Bo Hopkins sits on a counter stool for a few reaction shots, and Liv Tyler is seen in a bus station, hanging around the dreary waiting room as if likewise waiting for Godot.
It all ends in an extended mincemeat party that yields a string of gory corpses. These don't seem to bother anybody no matter how deep they pile up. It's all supposed to be ironic madness, and maybe it engages, amuses and entertains other viewers. For me it was the same as with several others of Oliver Stone's 'edgy' extravaganzas. I keep thinking, 'This is a very smart man and a very smart filmmaker. Does he really believe in this, or is he just screwing with all of our heads?'
Twilight Time's Blu-ray of U Turn is a dazzling transfer of a film that, for all I know, is eagerly awaited by a rabid fan base. The transfer, color, audio are all flawless. I particularly wanted to see the show to hear Ennio Morricone's music. Although much of the film is scored with needle-drop cues á la Tarantino. 1 It's all auditable on TT's Isolated Score Track.
The extras benefit from Oliver Stone's participation. Also present on a commentary track is the famous agent, producer and production executive Michael Medavoy, a fairly legendary name from my days cutting trailers for Orion Pictures. Mr. Medavaoy talks about the foundation of Phoenix Pictures and his offer of $15 million to Stone to make a picture. He'd worked with Sean Penn six or seven times before and knew that the strong-willed actor and director would be bound to clash here and there during production. Medavoy sounds far too young to have so much history behind him -- he oversaw many pictures that do not bear his name.
An original trailer is included that, I must say, would invite me to run the other way. Julie Kirgo's insert liner notes walk the fine line between product promotion and meaningful analysis of a movie by a still-relevant filmmaker, now in pursuit of another politically incendiary topic -- Edward Snowden. I found Stone's history documentary A HREF ="http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/s4265unto.html">The Untold History of the United States fascinating, even if some of what it said had me looking for secondary confirmation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Hey, if Stone were merely aping Quentin Tarantino, it would explain everything. I don't think Stone's that lame, however.
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T'was Ever Thus.