Monday, July 30, 2012

The Turnaround on U Turn, Oliver Stone's Directing School Art Project

The Good: Some decent acting, Moments of character/intrigue
The Bad: Stone's directoral toying, Terrible characters, Feels long
The Basics: With violent, mean and unredeemably bad characters, U Turn tells a story of a man trapped in a backwater town that Oliver Stone sloppily creates.

When I was in college, possibly when I saw The Usual Suspects (reviewed here!) in the theater, I saw a preview for Oliver Stone's U Turn. Ever since then, it has been on my list to see and I was thrilled to find it on DVD (albeit a no-frills version) and I was excited to sit down and watch this movie. If anything, I was biased toward it from the previews I barely remembered. As the movie stretched on and on, the anticipation faded and the reality sunk in; there's a reason U Turn is almost never mentioned with Stone's classic works JFK and Natural Born Killers.

Bobby Cooper is driving through Arizona en route to paying off a gambling debt that has already cost him two fingers when the radiator tube in his car's engine ruptures and he is forced to get it repaired. In the desert, he finds the small town of Superior and a crazy hick mechanic named Darrell. While Darrell is repairing Bobby's car, he goes into the town where he encounters Grace. Grace is nice enough, recognizes his flirting and brings him back to her house. Bobby is attacked by her husband, Jake, who then approaches Bobby with a proposition; he'll give him money to kill Grace, a proposition Bobby rejects. Unfortunately for Bobby, he's at the site of a stick-up and the money he's carrying to pay off his debts gets shot up by a store owner who kills the robbers. As Bobby is tossed between Darrell and a psychopath named TNT, attracted to Grace and avoiding the law in the form of Sheriff Potter, he finds himself desperate to get out of Superior and in need of money he does not have.

U Turn has a number of elements that seem to set it up for greatness. It has a respected director (Oliver Stone), it has a decent cast that includes Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Lopez (remember when she was primarily an actress?), and Billy Bob Thornton. It has characters that are, at the very least, intriguing. It even has some truly brilliant lines. The problem is, almost none of them all come together at the same time.

Possibly the best moment - and this is in the trailer, so it's not revealing anything too big - is when Bobby, played perfectly in the scene by Sean Penn, turns to Darrell - played with gruesome perversity by Billy Bob Thornton - and with uncharacteristic wit says, "Forty thousand people die each day, how come you're not one of them?" Now that's an insult! Penn delivers the line well, to the right character at the right moment. It's a nice moment of cinematic quality that is not necessarily indicative of the rest of the film.

Bobby owes people money and they've lopped off some of his fingers so from the moment Bobby comes into the picture, the viewer knows we're not dealing with the morally upstanding citizens of the world. Writer John Ridley does not keep the viewer waiting long, with Darrell being the first character the very impatient Bobby encounters. Whatever sympathy we have for Darrell who is immediately insulted by Bobby, fades with his shifty ways and underlying meanness (to say nothing of his rotted smile).

In short, U Turn features a cast of almost entirely unlikable characters. Superior, Arizona is populated by rogues, killers and psychopaths who bully, bribe and sex their ways through life. And it gets old pretty quick. Unlike a movie like Payback (reviewed here!) where the viewer roots for the antihero because they have been, in some way, wronged and has some redeeming quality to them, U Turn has no such luck.

Throughout this movie, characters tell Bobby that they see within him the killer instinct, the ability to kill, something he claims he has never done before arriving at Superior. The thing is, whether they see it or not, Bobby's sense of desperation leads him to exercise what he's never seen within him before. It's that kind of weak characterization where there's no integrity that turns the viewer off to empathizing with him. Instead, the viewer shrugs and says, "Don't care what's coming to him now."

Even the abused Grace has moments where the viewer thinks her character might be redeemable. Alas, Ridley and director Oliver Stone mortgage that by making Grace even more shifty than her abusive husband Jake. To his credit, Stone chose well to cast Jennifer Lopez as Grace and Nick Nolte as Jake. Nolte is appropriately menacing as Jake and almost every moment he's on screen makes the viewer's skin crawl. Similarly, Powers Boothe is decent as Sheriff Potter.

What's unredeemable is Stone's directing. Stone plays with the camera like a film school student, cheapening almost every vital moment of the film by using camera techniques. A good (or great) director figures out how to use the medium to effectively tell the story they want. While I applaud experimentation, Stone's camera experiments fail to illuminate the story or more importantly the characters in U Turn. Instead, the abrupt clips are distracting, sloppy and annoying.

Whatever potential the rogues gallery of U Turn had of surviving the unlikability of the characters and the somewhat predictable (or standard) criminal underworld plot is mortgaged by Stone's direction which sinks this film out of being watchable. At least now, it's off my list. If it's on yours, you might want to take it off before you, too, are disappointed.

For other works by Oliver Stone, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Wall Street
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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