Wednesday, June 11, 2008

U Turn (Columbia 1997) Sony Home Entertainment

Oliver Stone’s U Turn (1997) is an abysmal trifle – a disposable entertainment of monumental misfires. Bogged down by John Ridley’s screenplay that presents a ‘bad day’ gone virtually insane, the film is easily the most vial excuse for a road trip movie ever attempted. The landscape of Ridley’s novel and subsequent screenplay is populated with a bizarre cast of reprobates that Stone has chosen to flesh out with cameo turns from a potpourri of established talent. If only there were one among them worthy of our sustained interest or even minor fascination, the film might have evolved into something greater than a claptrap of disassociated vignettes.

The story begins when con artist, Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) bursts a radiator hose in his 1964 Mustang convertible. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, Cooper, a shyster who has lost two fingers as partial payment to Vegas hood, Mr. Arkady (Valery Nikolaev) and his henchman, Sergi (Ilia Volokh) was on his way back to Vegas with his $30,000 repayment when the accident occurred.

Barely making it to Harlan’s; an automobile graveyard and makeshift repair shop run by bleeding gums redneck, Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton), the egotistical Bobby makes short shrift of Darrell’s limited intellect before entrusting his repairs to this backwater blackmailer. He then departs on foot to the nearby town of Superior, Arizona – a figurative name at best.
In reality, the town is little more than a ramshackle of nearly abandoned store fronts and hovels populated by discarded lost souls that time forgot. Bobby’s first encounter is with a Blind Indian (Jon Voight) begging for loose change and a cold beverage on the street corner. Quickly, however, Bobby’s interests segue to town slut, Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez) a sultry Hispanic lugging several large boxes of window shades back to her Jeep. Bobby helps Grace with her load and earns an invitation to her home. However, once there Grace baits Bobby with sexual flirtations that end when Grace’s husband, Jake (Nick Nolte) arrives.

A physical altercation ensues. Bobby leaves the McKenna home but is picked up by Jake not far down the road. After apologizing for giving Bobby a bloody nose, Jake propositions him to kill his wife for $40,000 insurance money. Bobby refuses. However, when his own bag of money is destroyed in a shotgun blast during the hold up of a local convenience store, Bobby begins to have second thoughts. Distraught and desperate, Bobby telephones Arkady to plead his case, only to have his paymaster send Sergi after him.

In the meantime, Bobby incurs the wrath of local hothead, Toby N. Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix) who misinterprets a harmless conversation between Bobby and his girlfriend, Jenny (Claire Danes) as a passionate flirtation. It doesn’t help that Jenny – a clueless waif with more imagination than tact – enjoys observing Toby in action, thereby encouraging reasons for him to vent his rage. Bobby telephones Jake with his agreement to murder Grace. But once alone with her on a cliff Bobby instead falls under her spell. The two attempt to have sex, but Grace pulls away at the last moment – confessing that Jake was actually her mother’s second husband before he became hers. She tells Bobby of a $200,000 loot McKenna has stashed in a floor safe at their house. The key Jake wears around his neck is for its safe keeping. Now Grace and Bobby plot Jake’s murder instead.

Meanwhile, Sergi arrives in town and is promptly arrested by Sheriff Virgil Potter (Powers Boothe) for speeding. Bobby goes to the McKennas that evening with the intent to murder Jake. But the plan goes awry and after considerable struggle it is Grace who takes an Indian tomahawk to her husband’s chest instead. Bobby and Grace make haste with Jake’s body in the trunk of his car only to be pulled over by Virgil, who tells Bobby that he and Grace were supposed to run away together.

Grace murders Virgil in cold blood and she and Bobby dispose of both bodies over the side of a steep ravine. Unfortunately for Bobby, Grace has no intention of sharing her dead husband’s money with him. She pushes Bobby over the side of the cliff too and he tumbles down to a rocky plateau, breaking a leg and an arm on the way down. It is only then that Grace realizes Bobby still has the car keys in his pocket. She crawls down to retrieve them, but Bobby is still alive and after much flailing, strangles Grace to death instead. Making his way back to the car with considerable difficulty, Bobby laughingly proclaims that he is “still lucky” only to have the replacement radiator hose that Darrell fixed explode on him in the middle of nowhere. Trapped and mortally wounded, Bobby dies in the baking sun, his body awaiting the arrival of vultures to be picked apart.

Those pondering the significance of this bad karma/morality tale will be more than a tad perplexed. None of the characters are above suspicion or reproach; hence, none escape the dingy grit and uselessness of their miserable lives. The point of the story is undoubtedly to illustrate how no one can escape their own fate/destiny. Bobby has begun his journey with bad intentions – therefore, his fate can only consume his own selfishness and greed.

Jake is a child rapist who, even in death, is forced to watch another man pleasure the young woman he took advantage of for so many years. Grace is a perverse femme fatale. Though she tells Bobby she suspects Jake is responsible for her mother’s (Sheri Foster) fatal tumble down a cliff many years before, Grace’s own predilection for murder and her final betrayal of Bobby suggest that perhaps she might have killed her own mother to be with McKenna instead.

Ridley’s screenplay is little more than a series of improbable vignettes strung together by Bobby’s inability to learn from his past mistakes. There’s no progression or arch to any of the characters’ personal development. In fact, each is a cartoon cut-out from the rogue's gallery. Sean Penn is a fairly descent actor, but this isn’t his finest hour. He sleepwalks through his part, utterly disengaged. As Grace, Lopez is drearily uninspired – a cold-blooded reptile with a smoldering façade and a butt that should have its own zip code. Nolte's Jake is just another whack job ripped from the latter half of his most recent screen credits. Perhaps, in the final analysis, the only point to the film is ‘you can’t win’ a fitting tag line considering how poorly U-Turn performed at the box office.

Poor is a good work for Sony Home Entertainment’s DVD transfer; marred by excessive age related artifacts – dirt, scratches – and a very muddy color palette. At times the image can be crisp and relatively grain free. However, there are many instances where browns, taupe, oranges and beige blend into one indiscernible mess. Flesh tones are much too orange throughout. Fine details are lost during night scenes.  Pixelization occurs in background detail. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital but often slightly garbled, particularly during whispered portions of dialogue. This flipper disc also contains a full frame version of the movie on Side B. Why bother?  There are NO extras.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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