Every once in awhile, I will rewatch a film years after first seeing it and completely change my mind about it. This happened with U-Turn, Oliver Stone’s attempt to jump on the Quentin Tarantino bandwagon during the 90s. When I first saw this film in theaters in 1997, I hated it. This was not the Oliver Stone I was used to seeing and, worse, he wasn’t good at it. At the time, it seemed so obvious that Stone was trying to prove his hand at making a low-budget Tarantino-esque movie. Everyone else seemed to be doing it, so why not Stone? However, although it was ok for a new director to find his/her style by imitating established filmmakers, it was not ok for someone like Oliver Stone to imitate someone else, especially someone who came to the game long after Stone did. Apparently I was not the only one who felt this way as critics lambasted the film and it ended up being a huge commercial and critical failure.

Regardless, upon seeing U-Turn recently, I was struck by how much I enjoyed it this time around. Perhaps time had softened my reaction to the movie. In 1997, I could not help but associate the film with all the other Tarantino wannabes whereas now I could evaluate it on its own. Now this movie is still far from being one of Oliver Stone’s best films and I still regard it as his weakest, but it holds up as an entertaining 2 hours.

U-Turn is a film noir set in Superior, Arizona (a real town thats served as location for many other films). Sean Penn plays a grifter on his way to Las Vegas for money he owes to some Russian guys. On his way there, his car breaks down in Superior and he entrusts it to an almost unrecognizable Billy Bob Thornton, who operates a rundown mechanic shop. While he waits for his car to get fixed, Penn explores the small town of Superior, where he meets Jennifer Lopez, a sultry and unhappy housewife to Nick Nolte. She takes Penn back to her house where the two of them are discovered by the crazy and jealous Nolte. From there, Penn’s stay in Superior takes on an insane downward spiral involving colorful characters straight out of classic noir fiction.

As I state repeatedly above, U-Turn has shades of Quentin Tarantino, whose Pulp Fiction came out a mere 3 years before Stone’s film and who had written Stone’s previous Natural Born Killers. The film contains a few pop culture references and mannerisms that are reminiscent of Tarantino, but the most obvious comparison is Stone’s use of the song “Lonesome Town,” which was also used by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction. Again, at the time I first saw the film, these comparisons annoyed the hell out of me. However, time has made me view the film for what it is, which is a classic film noir set in the Southwest desert.

The plot of U-Turn is certainly nothing new and it feels too derivative of past film noir classics, especially Double Indemnity. Of course, like the horror and romantic comedy genres, you don’t really watch a film noir for its originality. Instead, you watch it for its style and characters. Here, you get to also see Oliver Stone throw in some of his signature touches, which combines nicely with the noir theme. Similar to other Stone films, the characters here possess a sort of craziness/lunacy. Nick Nolte, for example, is always jealous of his wife, which makes him paranoid and causes him to alternate between heated passion for her or a loathing hatred for her. Stone imbues the film with a carnival-like atmosphere, which is reflected in the score, the drug-induced camera moves, and the rapid cutaways. Combined, U-Turn offers a crazy ride that is not unlike Stone’s Natural Born Killers.

Sean Penn turns in his usual remarkable performance. He’s quite adept at playing desperate losers who find themselves in a shit heap of trouble (see Carlito’s Way). One stroke of bad luck leads to another for Penn’s character and watching him deal with his mounting problems reminded me a bit of Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Surrounding him is a great cast of actors who all turn in great and noteworthy acting. Billy Bob Thornton as the mechanic is like a dirtier, slimier version of his character in A Simple Plan. Powers Boothe as the drunken sheriff delivers his characteristic intimidating persona. Jon Voight as the homeless Native American Vietnam Vet (c’mon, you didn’t honestly think Stone would completely avoid throwing in some political elements into his film did you?) is great as the film’s sage who shows that nothing in this town is as it seems to be. I was especially impressed by the hilarious and delightful performance given by Claire Danes and Joaquin Phoenix, a pair of young small town lovebirds who come right out of the 1950s. They are both awesome and together they make up some of the film’s best scenes.

As for Jennifer Lopez and Nick Nolte, the other two principal characters, I was at first resistant to liking them. Despite the critical acclaim both actors, especially Nolte, have received in their careers, I’ve never been a huge fan of either actor. Nolte gives a good performance, but nothing spectacular and I don’t know whether I should blame the script or his acting skill. Lopez, on the other hand, is fantastic as the femme fatale. She oozes sexual appeal with every word and gesture she makes. Her performance made me wish she had stuck to her acting career rather than focus on turning herself into some megawatt diva. In other words, she should have stuck to being Jennifer Lopez instead of J Lo.

U-Turn is a beautiful looking film, which was shot by Stone’s longtime DP, Robert Richardson. Richardson uses deeply saturated colors to bring out the desert surroundings and to give the audience a sense of the desert’s heat and the heated sexual passions underlying the greed, scheming, and killings of the movie. However, for everything this movie explicitly is, it also implicitly shows another side of Oliver Stone’s America. I’ve seen almost all of Stone’s filmography and the one running theme of his movies is the dark, decrepit corruption that has permeated all of American society. Stone is the antithesis of Normal Rockwell. Its as if Stone himself was a Boy Scout in his youth and he developed a deep love for his country, which came to be poisoned by his life experiences in the 60s. Through his films, Stone gives us a Gothic Americana thats populated by ugliness (see JFK, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Nixon, Heaven and Earth, The Doors, etc.). U-Turn is yet another aspect of Stone’s America. The small town of Superior, Arizona is far from anything Norman Rockwell depicted in his Saturday Evening Post covers. This is a town plagued by alcoholism, poverty, and corruption and its the sort of town that you can see anywhere in America.

U-Turn certainly had the potential to be a great film, but it unfortunately falls just short of that. Nevertheless, its still a worthy Saturday afternoon. For me, it has improved with age and who knows? Maybe the next time I see I just might consider it one of Stone’s best films.

Advertisements