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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 22.37%
Average: 17.11%
Pretty Bad: 23.68%
Total Crap: 10.53%

5 reviews, 46 user ratings

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by Jack Sommersby

"An Arid Neo-Noir"
2 stars

Sean Penn and Oliver Stone team up to not much of a favorable effect.

There are a fair share of mediocre film directors out there who, sadly enough, remain gainfully employed at the expense of studio heads who don't mind these so-called artists churning out one impersonal film after another that might as well bear matching bracelets in light of their quintessential plasticity. They're purely functional craftsman contributing unflappable professionalism to a project without ever getting their hands dirty; directors like this neither feel neither the need nor obligation to narratively and visually interpret a script, to dig under its surface with the goal of unearthing something original or even halfway insightful. It's not just that they sap their films of any potential vitality but they take the audience down with them as well -- we pay hard-earned money for admission to big- and even moderate-budgeted films that are all glossy services and as original as a case of the flu. Sure, some of them possess a fair amount of skill, but it's usually at the service of subpar screenplays that haven't the innards to even remotely be elevated to a respectable level even in hands of a top-echelon director. Hence, their work leaves us with simplistic presentations rather than integrated pieces of invention. On the other side of the spectrum, there are directors out there like the prolific Oliver Stone, who, talented as he undoubtedly is, still feel the inherent need of that of a sophomore film student hell-bent on making the most attention-getting project to get everyone's but the school janitor's utmost attention.

The director of Wall Street, Talk Radio, and the Oscar-winning (and severely overrated) Platoon, Stone, starting with JFK, began infusing his work with such a high degree of visual hyperbole that the directing itself, rather than the story or characters, became the whole show. He started screwing around with variations in film speed, color and B/W film stock, and a frenetic editing style so as to make a Marilyn Manson music video seem like a John Denver sing-a-long by comparison. It'd certainly be fair to aver that Stone's motive for this MTV-style of directing in JFK and Natural Born Killers was to call attention away from faults in the screenplays by bombarding the audience with all this top-heavy visual artifice, with the nauseous Natural Born Killers the most valid case in point -- the ever-timely subject of media-obsessed criminals seemed like a welcome venture from this usually-political director; unfortunately, after a mere fifteen minutes, the viewer was already ODed on the whacked-out propaganda and cheesy visuals that I crawled to the back row of the theatre and prayed for a mercy killing. (In one fell swoop, Stone relegated himself to the lowest tier of his profession alongside the dubious likes of Tony Scott; that is, until his excellent 1995 Nixon proved an admirable model of restraint.) His follow-up, U-Turn, is clearly a dud, and yet it has a few good things in it, even if it doesn't really succeed.

The opening montage is splendidly rendered as we watch from a god's eye point of view a sleek red convertible rummaging down the desert roads of Arizona. It's similar to the introduction of Don Johnson's anti-hero in Dennis Hopper's fine neo-noir The Hot Spot; this time, it's Sean Penn at the wheel, who looks as if he'd just stopped work at an oil refinery -- his greasy-hair self is clad in black hipster clothes and practically oozes subterranean charm and put-upon smile. And Stone intercuts our sights of Penn's Bobby Cooper with views of a barren wasteland highly reminiscent of George Miller's post-apocalyptic world in The Road Warrior. We're treated to extreme close-ups of vultures and the like that work their way into our consciousness of what likely awaits Bobby -- destined doom.

Not surprisingly, the car's radiator hose bursts, and Bobby's forced to stop in the nearest town -- the type of which aptly described as a "fly speck on a map." The local mechanic, Darrell (a manic Billy Bob Thornton), who looks like a six-foot rat with his awful teeth, tells Bobby to come back in an hour. He wanders into town and encounters: a no-name half-crazed blind Native American (a hopelessly hammy Jon Voight); flirtatious teenager Jenny (a dour Claire Danes) and her ever-jealous beau "TNT" (an unbearable Joaquin Phoenix); and a beautiful woman, Grace (a peppy Jennifer Lopez), who invites Bobby back to her home to (I swear) "help hang her curtains." Penn and Lopez work up considerable chemistry, and their enjoyable give-and-take in Grace's house is so finely modulated that they elicit a sexual chemistry that feels real. But their luck turns to hell when Grace's husband, Jake (a trim Nick Nolte), comes home and finds them lip-smacking; Jake slugs Bobby and throws him out, where he's forced to make his way on foot back to town. Jake, however, drives up beside Bobby and offers him a lucrative deal: kill Grace for five-thousand dollars. Bobby, who owes a huge gambling debt to some thugs in Las Vegas (which is where he was driving to), scoffs at first but soon realizes it's an opportunity and his only chance left to come out of his plight alive. (The Vegas hoods have already cut off a finger.) From here, U-Turn follows the typical routes of many a noir where a flawed man must weave between other shady characters and double-dealings, and somehow use his intuition to survive.

Director Stone is working with someone else's material for a change (a screenplay by John Ridley based upon his own novel), and it seems to have taken the burden off his need to consistently nail home plot points and high-minded preaching that have turned some of his films into solipsistic sermons. He still demonstrates complete hold on his material, though, and some of his old talent for sly humor comes through in the scenes where Bobby's either dealing with Jake and Lopez or building to a hilarious slow burn with Darrell. These are small joys, and it's refreshing to see Stone just settle back and allow the actors to work on a responsive level while guiding through some of the scenes with a confident sleekness that's measured and disciplined. These are the good parts. But when those are gone (and they evaporate rather fast -- they lack the staying power of truly grounded theatrics) and we find that Stone's bad habits and tastes were only temporarily submerged, there's not a damned thing we can do about it.

The camerawork, which helped establish a doom-laden texture at the beginning, eventually begins to overwhelm the scenes instead of revealing things within them; Bobby's nightmarishly helpless situation has already been adequately rendered, and the constant assaults, with that damn jig-jagging cutting and soft-focus, grainy shots begin to wear down the goodwill worked up. Stone just can't do anything simple anymore and seems to feel that if he's not performing with an assault-on-the-senses technique that he's leaving the audience nonplussed, yet it's such a blatant case of overdirecting that the audience would be grateful if Stone were given a stern rebuke from a film-school professor wise to the self-indulgence of many a film student. The script isn't particularly bad, and that's even more of a reason for Stone to rein himself in and try to work with the words and the actors for the duration, not just in fits and starts, to tighten things up a bit. The double-dealings and plot twists are strictly out of the late Jim Thompson textbook though nowhere near as tantalizing, but John Ridley's fine novel didn't concentrate solely on the plot mechanics with a tenth of the energy he gave to the warped emotionalisms of his characters -- he was working with a junky structure and was canny enough to simply use this as a springboard, not an honored road map, to strictly adhere to. If Stone were on the same wavelength, he wouldn't be incorporating his overblown camera technique and staples from previous films (like a dreary philosophical Indian, to cite just one) and expect it all to make the grade.

Sean Penn is just about the only consistent pleasure the film has going for it. He's not given a great role -- not by a long shot -- but, with his own brand of humor, Penn works hard and comes up with some unexpected surprises in his tough-guy interpretation. There's a jewel of a scene in a diner where Bobby's being hounded by TNT and, already having a very bad day, you can sense his impulse in wanting to pound this fool into a helpless pulp yet achingly smiling to himself and maintaining his cool. This also goes for his verbal bouts with Russell, where Penn lets you know if it were metaphysically possible to transform oneself into a detonating bomb, Russell would be the first to know it and suffer the sire consequences. He's a wonderfully resourceful actor, and it'd be easy to accuse him of accepting shoddy work, but the opportunity to work with Stone must have been appealingly daring. After all, Stone has the honor of having gotten near-career-best work from such talents as James Woods (Salvador), Michael Douglas (Wall Street), and Anthony Hopkins (Nixon) where there were valid dramatics circulating throughout the scripts, and he made the actors stretch themselves by tearing out their comfortable mannerisms and forced them into a new creative enlightenment. But the material just isn't right for that here, so Penn performs in his own relaxed, creative area.

U-Turn isn't the worst thing that could have happened to Oliver Stone, but it's definitely the most relevant in assessing where exactly he stands as a director and what bad habits he's managed to shred and ones he's still clinging to. Before this, I thought the best thing in the world for him was to take on a non-sensationalistic, no-frills story where he could just concentrate on "the basics" so as to leave behind his political-propaganda in the closet for a while. But foolish people can't change unless they're faced with irrefutable evidence that they've become something of a clown in their field; so being that this film doesn't represent too much of a change, one is left to conclude that Stone, as gifted an artist that he is, is still living in denial

Read Jim Thompson's novels instead.

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originally posted: 10/27/07 01:11:07
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User Comments

9/16/17 morris campbell weird & boring 1 stars
4/07/13 Monday Morning Offbeat, weird, campy and very entertaining 4 stars
12/05/07 dingo Watchable 4 stars
11/11/07 reddye5 For some reason I liked this one. Penn is great, but style outweighs the story too often 3 stars
2/13/07 ES Not just boring, ugly boring 1 stars
6/27/06 Criddic2 Despite the cast, a waste of film; It is pointless, uninspired; Disappointing! 1 stars
9/23/05 Indrid Cold An all-American near-classic. The plot is just too scattered though. 4 stars
6/21/05 Tom quibell it's weird that's what I like about it 5 stars
12/04/04 Steven Loori Ham-faced/fisted/acted. End-to-end rehash. Awful set/sound design. Canned dog barks!?! 1 stars
11/12/04 jellica it was a good movie goood acting 5 stars
9/08/04 Douglas Reese I LOVED THIS MOVIE!!! Very well made. Deserved Best Picture Oscar nominee nod. 5 stars
6/06/04 John tries to make obvious moral points but has no story or charachters you care for 1 stars
12/13/03 Agent Sands I agree whole-heartedly with Ryan A, but I was a bit more entertained. 4 stars
9/15/03 Donna Gelpigi A nightmarish thriller that even Jennifer Lopez can't spoil! 5 stars
9/06/03 john awesome, fun 5 stars
7/28/03 francis Bizarrely interesting, but can we really care about what happens to these wackos. 3 stars
5/07/03 Geirn YEAHH awesome 5 stars
4/23/03 Bill go see freeway instead. 1 stars
3/22/03 Jack Sommersby Scattershot plot points fire away at the helpless cast. 2 stars
1/27/03 R.W. Welch Sets up well enough but eventually becomes almost ludicrous. 2 stars
11/09/02 Steve Twisty and funny. Lopez and Phoenix are especially good. 4 stars
10/14/02 Charles Tatum Stone proves he doesn't have to rewrite history to make a stupid movie 1 stars
7/12/02 KMG Ho-pez before she got ghetto 3 stars
8/10/01 E-Funk Interesting little 'wrong place at the wrong time' story. Lopez looks delicious. 4 stars
8/04/01 eminem 5 stars
6/22/01 Reini Urban best camera and technic this year, plot almost blood simple. much better than out of sight. 4 stars
3/19/01 Shawn I really dug this film! Sex, violence, drama, comedy, suspense, it has it all! 5 stars
2/17/01 Jake Good plot and music, way too long. Red Rock West had same plot and was way better! 3 stars
9/21/00 Mike Great cast but the plot gets pretty lame. WAY too long, Mr Stone(d)! 2 stars
8/13/00 Cidec Stark fucking awesome 5 stars
1/07/00 PervertedPixie A mix of "Romeo is bleeding", "Pulp Fiction" and "Gilbert Grape". Great stuff! 5 stars
9/21/99 Tina Liked it- nice twists- everybody dies! 4 stars
6/14/99 Dylan Oliver Stone is a fucking genius and this film rocks. thats it. 5 stars
5/27/99 GothamDK Stone trying to pull a Lynch. Jennifer Lopez is the only highlight of this lost film. 2 stars
4/15/99 Jon Jackson Why more people don't like this movie I don't know, but I do know I like cake. 5 stars
3/17/99 The Dude Fucking funny ending I loved this fucking movie 5 stars
1/23/99 Arthur fuck this shit 2 stars
12/05/98 tj usually i hate oliver stone...but this is an amazing movie...and jenn. lopez looks so good 5 stars
11/25/98 Fred Nick, think back to Cannery Row, and kick your own ass. I want Jenny. 3 stars
10/13/98 Johny No NBK or JFK, but very watchable 4 stars
9/22/98 Pat_Sicox Crack Film 3 stars
9/07/98 Damien Highly underrated, I thought it was cool and disturbing 4 stars
8/29/98 Mister Whoopee This one lost me way early. Claire Danes rocks, but otherwise... 1 stars
8/24/98 The Capital City Goofball Jen Lopez = sex --- Nick Nolte = lame. 3 stars
8/23/98 Superfly Great, if you like dark comedies. 4 stars
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  04-Oct-1997 (R)



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