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Grime Doesn't Pay

Now that Oliver Stone has explained to us (at some length) that the CIA killed JFK, that Nixon was a paranoid loser, but not quite the paranoid loser his enemies have always imagined, and that violence in America is really a conspiracy between the celebrity-hungry public and the cynical mass media--now that Stone has done all that, he's apparently decided to decompress.

Not too much, mind you. His new movie, U-Turn, cost $20 million and runs a mere 125 minutes, a downsizing that still represents a considerable investment in the practice of genius. But turning out a nasty little money-and-sex thriller set in the sun-scorched Southwestern desert is a far cry from revamping War and Peace or providing the last word on U.S. culture, which is what the rest of Stone's career seems to be about.

Actually, U-Turn is a case of genre-splicing, and a familiar one at that. From the Western, Stone and writer John Ridley have borrowed the ancient stranger-in-town device and all of the attendant suspicions. From film noir, they've lifted most of the rest: the simmering femme fatale, the tangled murder-for-hire schemes and the relentless corruption. In tiny Superior, Arizona, a windblown carcass of a place literally circled by vultures, everyone is a liar, a lunatic or, if you'll excuse the expression, a natural-born killer. Inside of two days, our visiting "hero," a small-time gambler on the run named Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn), finds himself asking the inevitable question: "Is everybody fucking everybody in this crazy fucking town?"

Well, actually, yes. What did you expect, pal? Stone calls U-Turn a "scorpions in a bucket" movie, which means that the characters couldn't care less who was lurking out there on the grassy knoll or whether Jim Morrison was a martyr to High Art on the order of Rimbaud. They simply want to sting and sting away to their cold hearts' content.

The dramatis personae, each and every one dipped in Stone's brand of black comedy, include a grimy auto mechanic named Darrell (Sling Blade's Billy Bob Thornton) who's not as stupid as he looks; a conniving real estate baron called Jake McKenna (grizzled Nick Nolte) with a houseful of cash and secrets, and Jake's Apache temptress of a wife, Grace (Jennifer Lopez, late of Selena). Guess what? She's a siren in a clinging red dress who can gaze heatedly into the eyes of a total stranger and say: "I'm tired of hangin' drapes. What shall we do now?"

There's a cafe waitress named Flo (Julie Haggerty), a glowering sheriff (Powers Boothe) who keeps a pint of bourbon under the front seat of his cruiser, and a decrepit blind Indian (Jon Voight) who stations himself with his mangy dog on the town's fly-bitten main street dispensing omens and dark wisdom.

In other words, ill-named Superior, Arizona, is not really the place you want your beloved red sixty-four-and-a-half Mustang convertible to blow a radiator hose--especially when you're trying to deliver thirty thousand in cash to the Russian mob in Las Vegas. Oh, well. Bobby Cooper's been in town scarcely two hours before Darrell impounds his car, the Indian wise man hits him up for a cold Dr Pepper, he gets caught in the crossfire of a disastrous grocery-store stickup, sultry Grace seduces his bony ass and--let's see here--at least two terminally unhappy citizens offer him work as a hitman. Just for grins, a jealousy-crazed teenager (Joaquin Phoenix) also tries to beat the crap out of him.

This makes for a busy afternoon. But not as busy as Stone's. As is his wont, the director stuffs U-Turn with his usual array of mixed film stocks, psychedelic cutting and image bombardments. Confirmed Stone-heads will likely delight in the show. But for all his bells and whistles--there's also a thumping score by Ennio Morricone, who lent his gifts to the Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns--the director doesn't summon up the kind of vivid moral rot that has energized other recent neo-noir gems. James Foley's After Dark, My Sweet and John Dahl's Red Rock West, also set in terminally evil desert towns, come immediately to mind. As always, Stone loads up on tricks but falls a little short on substance.

This wasn't lost on some prospective cast members. Bill Paxton was U-Turn's original Bobby, but he begged off ten days before shooting started, and Sharon Stone turned down the femme fatale part. Nonetheless, Penn does his level best as a shady character caught in a web of vile grotesques, and the brilliant Nolte, who reminded me here of a depraved Lee Marvin, wind-burned and desperate, is always sheer pleasure to watch. But as the body count quickly rises and double-cross begets double-cross under the desert sun, it becomes clear that Stone is no Sam Peckinpah and he's no Sam Fuller. Neither the coziness of Western mythology nor the wicked claustrophobia of film noir seems the proper realm for a moviemaker who, for better or worse, has always insisted on thinking big, living large and wrestling with outsized issues.

Seen in that light, U-Turn almost (almost!) makes you yearn for the good old days, when Oliver Stone was busy pontificating on the fate of the Republic. You can bet he'll crank up into that gear again.

U-Turn.
Screenplay by John Ridley, from his novel Stray Dogs. Directed by Oliver Stone. With Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton and Jon Voight.

 
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