Courtesy Photo
Directed by Oliver Stone

Starring Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton, Claire Danes, Joaquin Phoenix, Jon Voight, Powers Booth, Julie Haggerty & Lauie Metcalf

Cameo: Liv Tyler


Opened: October 3, 1997 | Rated: R

Good ol' Oliver Stone. He just can't seem to tell a story without diverging into some unnecessarily seamy territory.

I know full well that Stone's films are not for the faint of heart. I am not the faint of heart. I'm not going Michael Medved on you here. It's just that in an Oliver Stone movie when, say, Sean Penn and Jennifer Lopez are going at it and Nick Nolte walks in, it isn't enough that Nolte is her husband -- he has to be her father, too.

Infidelity isn't volatile enough for Stone. Gotta throw in that incest or it's just no fun for him.

"U-Turn" (based on John Ridley's book "Stray Dogs") is a great modern noir-Western gone wrong, about an uncouth stranger who wanders into trouble passing through a desert town.

Peopled by screw-loose yokels, dangerous women and blind Indian shaman who spout philosophical foreshadowing, fictitious Superior, Arizona is an absorbing creation. It's the kind of town where the church has been closed for years and Stone presents its parched, soulless, dusty streets in over-exposed colors that burn the eyes.

There's no better place for an unscrupulous con's car to break down.

Enter Bobby Cooper (Penn), an impatient guy with a gambling debt to pay and a Mustang with a busted radiator hose.

The gritty mechanic (Billy Bob Thornton, playing a hayseed to the nth degree) can fix it, but he "don't know how long it'll take," so Bobby wanders the streets of Superior finding trouble at every turn.

A teenage girl flirts with him and her hot-headed boyfriend seeks vengeance. He wanders into a hold up and gets robbed. But mostly people offer him money to kill their spouses.

He meets Grace (Lopez) on the street and she takes him home. Some serious teasing ensues, along with lines like, "And here I got you all hot and sweaty," delivered by Lopez with a sultry feigned innocence that could melt the elastic band on anybody's boxer shorts.

She offers Bobby money to kill her husband and when that doesn't seem enough, she offers herself. She is desperate to leave town, and gives him the sob story of her life, complete with rape, incest and other assorted nastiness.

But Bobby has already met her husband (Nolte) and made a deal to kill her.

Stone weaves this weird tale well. He loads "U-Turn" with almost subliminal sensory information by the use of flash close-ups that expose anger, sweat and thirst. He plies hard tension with comic relief (Claire Danes and Joaquin Phoenix as the teenage couple are a riot) and pools superb performances from his talented cast (Nolte is especially intimidating and creepy).

But he also loads "U-Turn" with stock dialogue and disappointing predictably and he does it on purpose. He seems to be having a private little joke that the audience is not in on.

"Kinda peculiar how things happen, ain't it?" Bobby is asked by a local. Kinda peculiar how, for instance, Liv Tyler shows up in the background of one scene with no speaking lines. Cute touch, but quit distracting me, Oliver.

As complex as Bobby's life seems to have become on one afternoon, he still goes against his better judgement and agrees to make off with Grace and her husband's money. Inevitably this leads to questions of loyalty and trust, with unpleasant results.

With this stellar cast, "U-Turn" might have been better without Stone's assaultive direction. Even though he hasn't make a war picture in years, he still shoots many of his scenes like a machine gun battle, with flash editing and unstable cameras.

The man is an incredibly effective director, but his aim seems always to overload his audience, and with a story this rich in painful emotion, raw lust and physical violence, that overload just isn't necessary.

I mean, only in an Oliver Stone movie would you find two people making love on a bed soaked in blood.

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