U-TURN director Oliver Stone on the 1997 black comedy/crime noir : “I love the outrageous humor of it…It’s about small-town America, perversion, corruption, incest — all those good things — and Sean Penn wanders right into it. He’s the lobster in the pot.” Scripted by John Ridley, from his novel “Stray Dogs”, Stone’s bummer road trip/bad acid trip, morals & taste broiler boasts a heavyweight cast working their rears off in some striking cinematography from Robert Richardson. Hang tough, snicker and flinch, as excess is the order of the day.
‘Bobby’ (Penn), on the skip from a cash-debt to Russian hoods (who’ve already snipped off a couple of his fingers), sees his luck go from worse to hellish when his Mustang breaks down in an Arizona desert backwater burg with a decidedly unsavory populace. Skeezy mechanic ‘Darrell’ (Billy Bob Thornton) holds the car hostage, a botched robbery leaves Bobby’s money stash in literal tatters, and crazy-acting realtor ‘Jake McKenna’ (Nick Nolte) wants the stranded stranger to murder his wife for him. The sheriff (Powers Boothe) has a drinking problem, local punk ‘Toby N. Tucker’ (Joaquin Phoenix) wants to pound Bobby because he’s convinced Bobby’s coming on to his bird-brained girlfriend ‘Jenny’ (Claire Danes). A blind vagrant (an unrecognizable Jon Voight) spouts warnings. Only Jake’s sultry-as-the-Rio Puta wife ‘Grace’ (Jennifer Lopez) offers a way out—and plenty more—that isn’t disgusting, and she comes with a cost. It’s one of those days….
The profanity-laden script doesn’t break any new ground (other than the queasy incest angle), and owes a good deal of framing to older noir items like Red Rock West, except that there is no-one to root for here. Bobby’s dilemma would arouse more sympathy if played by Bill Paxton, who backed out of the project; Penn’s jerk-as-hero is just not likable enough, in a scenario where everyone else is sick or suspect. There are a number of darkly funny bits, but you have to endure a lot of in-your-face sleaze. Other than as an exercise in style, and dip into technique-flaunting nihilism, there’s not much point to it all, and the violence piles on. Ennio Morricone’s obtrusive score goes for ‘wacky’, early on, and won’t shut up.
And yet—most of the acting hits the bullseye. Fresh off his breakthrough in Sling Blade, Thornton’s malevolent grease monkey, complete with doof glasses, a beer gut and teeth that would repel a bush hog, and Phoenix, doing Tiny-Elvis-Gone-Pyscho as the town’s leading permanent punk, make their scenes crackle. Voight has a high time under the makeup guise of the half-Apache panhandler, the only resident with a lick of sense, even though he’s S.O.L. for a future. Boothe could get more sinister mileage out of a simple, calmly asked question than most actors, and Nolte rips out the inner torment that lives inside some of his best work (The Prince Of Tides, The Thin Red Line) and basically dares you to not close your eyes. In her year to really crank it up a notch as a viable screen presence, with Selena and the box office & cult favorite Anaconda, Lopez turns on the heat as the vixen kitty who drives the men to their just desserts.
Stone doesn’t hold back with audacious directorial flourishes (maybe a few too many), and Robert Richardson gets every morsel of good, bad and ugly out of the faces, situations and surroundings with his camera, using film stock that saturates your eyeballs with an extra dose of textured unreality. The town of Superior (once a mining hotspot) is a real place, worked over by the art director to fit the story. Other Arizona locations used included Globe and Florence.
Moneywise, it was one of Stone’s worst-performing films; costing $21,000,000, it creaked into 130th place with a homeland take of just $6,683,000. Part of this weak reception was due to the film’s mean mirth, part from critics ceaseless undercutting Stone’s movies from different political and philosophical ends of the spectrum. The bad taste left from Natural Born Killers didn’t help. This one was just too nasty to draw crowds. *
With Julie Hagerty (off-the-charts loopy as gauche waitress ‘Flo’), Laurie Metcalf, Bo Hopkins (nada to do but just be there), Brent Briscoe and Liv Tyler (no dialog, no nothing, just a cameo for the heck of it). Film history buffs can’t miss the homage to Duel In The Sun. 125 minutes.
* Running the gauntlet between Stone, Penn and Lopez, did this film have to budget for an unaccredited Ego Wrangler? We’ll always cut Stone slack, thanks to a track record of bold smashes and for having the guts to joust with an Empire. La Lopez is sexy, and a decent actress, but the whole diva thing can go fish. Penn can be terrific or trying. Here, he’s bloodied, battered and stomped from one end of the picture to another (seven different characters get in their licks) but watching I can’t help but wish someone would please just b-slap the damn cigarettes out of his kisser. Movie after movie, pack after pack….