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At the Movies: ‘U-Turn’

October 2, 1997 GMT

Let’s make one thing clear from the outset_ something much of movie-viewing America undoubtedly already knows: Oliver Stone, it’s evident, needs a therapist. Or at least a high colonic.

That said, the best art of any age typically comes from the dysfunctional artist, and ``U-Turn″ is just that _ Stone’s oddball glimpse into a shadow America that no one wants to believe exists but that undoubtedly does.

Stone has been quoted as saying he wanted to make a movie that wouldn’t be reviewed in the editorial pages as ``JFK,″ ``Nixon″ and ``Natural Born Killers″ were, and ``U-Turn″ will probably succeed. He is adept, as always, at making America his collective therapist, and millions will absorb his angst as he chronicles a few days in the life of a hapless visitor to the washed-out desert town of Superior, Ariz.

Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn), armed with a duffel bag full of cash, just wants to get to Vegas to pay off a debt when his red ``1964 1/2″ Mustang breaks down on a blistering, cracked Arizona highway. The nearest town, Superior, is three miles away, so he makes a U-turn and heads on in.

And the nightmare begins _ a twisted ride during which we see Billy Bob Thornton play Twister with himself, Joaquin Phoenix eat a bus ticket and Nick Nolte do his very best Lee Marvin impression.

The plot, in brief: Bobby, no matter what he does, can’t get out of Superior. At every turn he is thwarted, whether it be by delicious, dangerous siren Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez), bottom-feeding mechanic Darrell (Thornton), psychotic dandy hick Toby N. Tucker (``They call me TNT″) or the brooding Sheriff Potter (Powers Boothe). Along the way he gets sucked into a vortex of conspiracy, lurid sex and death.

This kind of approach could come off quite cliche, sort of a ``Mayberry RFD″ meets ``Blue Velvet″ in which Opie gets his ear cut off and Barney Fife ends up sleeping with Aunt Bee. But under Stone’s adept ministrations _ and a self-restraint he rarely exhibits _ ``U-Turn″ truly works.

As is Stone’s style, he draws from a melange of cinematic traditions, from the topsy-turvy photography of Russ Meyer’s 1960s soft-porn exploitation films to the quick cuts, off-dialogue stylism, narrative jumps and oblique diagonals of MTV’s ``Real World.″

And ``U-Turn″ is schizophrenic, a veritable Sybil of scenes and semiotics. It’s David Lynch. Wait _ it’s Sam Peckinpah, then Wim Wenders, then Quentin Tarantino. Stop _ it’s Jean-Luc Godard and ``Alphaville.″ Matter of fact, the French New Wave legacy that produced Godard contributes a great deal to ``U-Turn″; it virtually originated the technique known as ``intertextuality,″ or citing other filmmakers’ styles within a film.

Stone also delves more deeply into themes he touched upon in ``The Doors″ and ``Natural Born Killers″ _ the American outback, once frontier, now desiccated and desolate but crawling with the dormant malevolence of dead-end lives _ a malevolence that Penn’s character exacerbates. An unsettling, memorable soundtrack by Ennio Morricone chronicles the ride.

Penn’s Bobby undergoes a remarkable transformation, from cockiness embodied to broken antihero. He starts out chastising Darrell: ``That’s the difference between you and me. That’s why you’re living here and I’m just passing through.″ By the end, he is broke, bawling and blubbering, desperate to get out of Superior any way he can.

Jon Voight makes an unlikely but effective blind Indian, dispensing reluctant wisdom while sitting next to his dead dog. ``Are you a human being, or just some hungry ghost out there?″ he asks Bobby. Nolte as Jake McKenna, a man whose bookshelf includes ``Sporting Arms of the World,″ represents, like many of the movie’s characters, both evil and truth. Lopez, never sexier, is a desperate woman to be avoided at any cost.

Superior itself is a star _ a real decaying town rebuilt by Stone into a movie-set community where everybody drives pre-1975 American cars, scorpions lurk in the water spigots and it’s 95 degrees by midmorning. This must be the town Norman Bates’ motel was on the outskirts of.

``U-Turn″ is ultimately unrepentantly violent, a cinematic monster under the bed that conveys utter despair and paranoia at the state of our nation. None of its characters is likable, but none is boring.

In the end, after it drifts into gross comedy and absolute appalling callousness, it offers an important message for post-McVeigh America: Don’t dismiss small towns as irrelevant and full of hicks. It could prove fatal.

And ``U-Turn,″ the journey to that message, holds the key to Oliver Stone’s success _ a bubbling cauldron of hodgepodge that comes together into genius and tells us a bit more about who we are.

``U-Turn″ is directed by Oliver Stone and produced by Dan Halsted and Clayton Townsend from a screenplay by John Ridley. It is rated R.


Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G _ General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG _ Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 _ Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R _ Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 _ No one under 17 admitted.