By the late 1990s, director Oliver Stone had lost his way. This devolution was a long time coming. Many could argue it was his over the top foray into Tarantino land, 1995’s Natural Born Killers, that warned of fitful inspiration, while others would trumpet that specific film as his greatest achievement. It all depends on what you’re looking for from a director, or in a film. I prefer coherence, or at least a perspective that’s not purely obsessed with technique.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Stone was known as a fiercely political director, the dogmatic, twisted and obsessed storyteller of agitprop filmmaking. But following Nixon, a misguided conspiracy-laden exercise in paranoia which took even greater leaps of logic and history than his fantasy version of Jim Garrison’s investigation of the assassination of JFK, Stone decided (wisely) to take a break from politics and (unwisely) chose to rehash well-worn noir terrain by adapting author John Ridley’s neo-noir Stray Dogs. The result, U-Turn, is a derivative, trite noir that resembles better films and better stories, with Stone trying his best to distract you from that sameness by dangling lots of flashy things and big name actors in small cameos resulting in a melted banana split; very colorful with no substance whatsoever.
Sean Penn is a low-life, headed to Las Vegas to pay off a gambling debt. His car breaks down in Superior, Arizona, a hyper-intensive shit hole, where Billy Bob Thornton, is the grimier than grimy mechanic, Claire Danes is the teenager hot to run away, and Joaquin Phoenix is her retro-billy boyfriend looking to beat up anyone who even looks at her. Penn lands in the middle of marital mess between a steaming hot young woman (Jennifer Lopez) and her husband (Nick Nolte) who each offer to pay him to kill the other. (Sound familiar? It should – it’s the plot from half a dozen other crime thrillers, most notably John Dahl’s far superior Red Rock West.) Throughout there’s a myriad of side plots, featuring Jon Voight as a heavily made-up homeless and blind Indian shaman, Power Boothe as a corrupt sheriff (are there any other kind in the desert?) and Liv Tyler as “Girl in bus station.”
As usual, Sean Penn acts the shit out of his part, Nick Nolte does his best John Huston (Chinatown spoiler?) and everyone else seems game to be raped and abused or play rapists and abusers. The dark secret revealed in the third act can be seen coming a mile away if you’ve ever passed through the townships of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, eliciting laughter rather than surprise.
Stone’s style during this period could be best described as Tony Scott psychedelia, the latter transitioning into full music video mode from the time he adapted Tarantino’s True Romance (1993), (which seemed to motivate Stone to do the same, adapting Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers (1995) two years later). In fact, Stone and Scott seemed to be involved in a competitive style-dance throughout the 90s all the way until Scott’s last film Unstoppable. Mashing-up different film stock, lenses, video and in-camera effects with quick jump cuts and forced continuity, both directors seemed hell-bent on ignoring the source material as much as possible in favor of creating over-cranked “ecstasy trips” on screen. There’s no question Scott excelled at this style, as mannered and exhausting as it was, but while Stone seemed continually intrigued by these stylistic, testosterone-pumped forays, he would sometimes show a little more restraint from film to film. But as recently as 2012’s Savages, he was still at it, returning to his sado-masochistic fever dreams.
However you feel about Stone or his films, the reason to check out Twilight Time’s recent Blu-ray release of U-Turn, as well as any Oliver Stone film, is for the audio commentary. As incoherent as his films tend to be, his ramblings are utterly hilarious, as he bounces from one conspiracy theory to the next, referencing John Paul Sartre to John Lennon and everyone in between as inspirations for his work. In fact, he claims to have created a whole new genre with U-Turn; not “film noir”, but “film soleil”. (No comment.)
In a specially filmed introduction included on the disc, Stone claims U-Turn is one of his most popular films (not really sure where he gets his information, but box-office receipts, video rental numbers and Rotten Tomatoes figures would show otherwise) and his most “experimental.” Whether you agree or not, if randomly designed assaults to your senses and well-worn tropes are to your liking, you will enjoy this film. For everyone else, bypass U-Turn and continue on down the highway.