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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 10/02/1997, B: Gary Susman,


Film noir takes a U-Turn

by Gary Susman

U-TURN, Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by John Ridley, based on his novel Stray Dogs. With Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Voight, Powers Boothe, Claire Danes, and Joaquin Phoenix. A TriStar Pictures release. At the Cheri, the Fresh Pond, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

U-Turn opens with the legend "An Oliver Stone Movie" -- not the usual "An Oliver Stone Film." That is, it's Stone's first non-"message" picture in at least 16 years, since the days of such pure genre flicks as The Hand and Conan the Barbarian. U-Turn is just your basic film noir, only with all the walloping, bravura technique that Stone brings to the similarly far-fetched premises of his overtly political films.

U-Turn's anti-hero is Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn), your typical noir drifter in trouble. A broken radiator hose strands Bobby and his vintage Mustang in Superior, Arizona, a remote, moribund desert hamlet. While he waits for repairs, he meets Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez), a hot-and-bothered beauty who neglects to tell Bobby that she's married, to local real-estate tycoon Jake McKenna (Nick Nolte).

Catching Bobby in a clinch with his wife, Jake sizes up the stranger as a man short on both scruples and cash. (Turns out Bobby owes $30,000 to our favorite new movie villains, Russian mobsters, who have already cut off two of his fingers as interest.) Later that day, the ever-jealous Jake will offer to pay Bobby to kill Grace. Shortly after, Grace will make him a counter-offer to kill Jake. Bobby wants to flee, but his own poor decisions, the hostility of assorted townsfolk, and outrageously bad luck foil his every attempt to escape from Superior (hence the title).

There's little here you haven't seen many times before, from the plot (most recently recycled in Red Rock West) to the stock characters (including Billy Bob Thornton's wily redneck mechanic and a big-haired diner waitress named Flo). In Grace's troubled backstory and her love/suspicion relationship with Bobby, film geeks will catch many other echoes of such femme fatale classics as Out of the Past, The Lady from Shanghai, and especially Duel in the Sun. Also familiar are the standard noir themes: you can't escape your fate, appearances are deceiving, crime doesn't pay (but honesty often pays even less) -- you know the drill.

What's new to the formula is Stone's presentation. Noir is less about plot or character than atmosphere; Stone and his longtime cinematographer, Robert Richardson edit their signature diverse film stocks into a hyperkinetic montage to create a setting of chaos and fragmented perspectives, a moral desert of mercilessly glaring light (a bold change from the usually shadowy, nocturnal world of noir), where even the grainy film stock seems to be choking on dust. (Real-life residents of Superior reportedly expect the film to boost tourism, even though the movie's Superior is a Sartrian boxtrap that looks like Satan's bus-station waiting room.)

In keeping with the setting's cruel sunniness, Stone and screenwriter John Ridley tell the story as a black farce. Penn's repeated suffering of violent "accidents" is played for laughs. There's a grotesque parody of the Bobby-Grace-Jake triangle in the story of Jenny (Claire Danes), a flirtatious teen who sees in Bobby a ticket out of town, and jealous boyfriend Toby N. Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix), a would-be rebel whose initials are shaved into his ducktail. Stone's traditional portentous Indian oracle (Jon Voight) is here; his sacrament isn't peyote, however, but Dr. Pepper. Nolte and Lopez preserve their characters' mystery by playing close to the vest, but Penn suggests that he's in on the joke, even as Bobby reels in deadpan, mind-numbed horror from the absurdity of his predicament. There's also a score (by Ennio Morricone, of course) whose jauntiness works too hard to convince us we're supposed to be laughing.

Not that Stone actually has a sense of humor (Natural Born Killers was supposed to be a satire, remember?). Like Stone's docudramas, U-Turn is about a paranoiac whose worst conspiracy fears are realized. U-Turn has a lot more laughs and thrills than a typical Stone flick, but by the end, you'll feel that familiar Stone-film feeling of having taken repeated blows to the kidney.