Great unappreciated films: U-Turn


© Tri-Star Pictures


It’s hard to believe today, but there was a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Oliver Stone seemed to bestride American cinema like King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building.  Like it or not – and many critics and commentators did not, both conservative ones who didn’t approve of his shit-stirring, anti-establishment politics and sophisticated liberal ones who found his approach loud, crude and simplistic – he was everywhere.  He’d clobber you with one big sensationalist movie tackling some unsavoury aspect of America’s present or recent past.  And then, when you managed to withstand that, he’d pop up again and clobber you with another one.


US involvement in Central America?  Salvador (1986).  Vietnam?  Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven and Earth (1993).  The swinging sixties?  The Doors (1991).  Kennedy’s assassination?  JFK (1991).  The coarsening of the American news media?  Natural Born Killers (1994).  Watergate?  Nixon (1995).  Wall Street?  Er, Wall Street (1987).  For a while, it was almost like an episode of modern American history hadn’t properly happened until old Oliver had made a movie about it.


But times change.  Stone has continued making films into the 21st century, like Alexander (2004), World Trade Centre (2006), W. (2008) and Snowden (2016).  The reviews have been lukewarm, however, and the consensus seems to be that if he hasn’t entirely lost it, he certainly doesn’t have what he had 25 years ago.


I find this rather sad because, with a few exceptions, I enjoyed the movies Stone made in his heyday.  They might have been pompous and in-your-face but they were rarely dull.  And I liked the fact that Stone’s movies were both popular and questioning of the status quo, at a time when the Reagan-Bush administrations in Washington DC would doubtless have preferred Hollywood to keep churning out Rocky and Rambo films.


And though it was fashionable to deride Stone as a big, earnest movie mogul with no sense of humour, I found many of his films very funny.  During the likes of Salvador and The Doors and even the bloodbath that was Natural Born Killers, there were moments when I laughed out loud.  I couldn’t understand why when it came to Stone many critics didn’t get the joke.


For me, though, the Oliver Stone movie that ranks highest on the laugh-o-meter is one of his most neglected and forgotten ones – I suspect the reason why it’s neglected and forgotten is because it’s a very rare beast, a non-political Stone movie.  1997’s U-Turn is a crime thriller / black comedy based on a novel called Stray Dogs by John Ridley, who also wrote the script.  (In 2014, Ridley would win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave).  It’s about a drifter called Bobby (Sean Penn) fleeing from the mafia, to whom he owes money, whose car breaks down and leaves him stranded in a hick town called Superior in the middle of the Arizona Desert.


© Tri-Star Pictures

© Tri-Star Pictures


Whilst waiting impatiently for his car to be fixed so he can get out of town again – his pursuers will be turning up soon and, also, the place and its inhabitants are driving him crazy – Bobby gets caught in a web of intrigue involving crooked local bigshot Jake McKenna (Nick Nolte), Jake’s young, gorgeous and predictably duplicitous wife Grace (Jennifer Lopez) and the sullen and also-crooked town sheriff Virgil Potter (Powers Boothe).  As an interloper, Bobby is soon enlisted to murder one of the parties concerned.  And then that party enlists him to murder someone else…


The Nolte-Lopez-Boothe part of the plot gives U-Turn a twisty and poisonous crime noir  vibe – Stone described the scenario as a ‘scorpions-in-a-bucket’ one where every character is a predator who won’t stop stinging until he / she’s satisfied everyone else is dead.  But the film is also Kafka-esque in an amusing way.  Bobby loathes the hot, sweaty backwater he’s become stuck in.  “Is everyone in this town on drugs?” he rants at one point.  Yet through sheer bad luck his every effort to escape from Superior is thwarted and before long you’re wondering if he’ll ever escape from it.  Which is hellish for him but blackly funny for us, the audience.


It doesn’t help that Bobby has entrusted his broken-down car to the care of a local mechanic called Darrell, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who’s nearly unrecognisable in hideous fake teeth, taped-together glasses and a patina of engine grime.  His approach to car repair is as delicate as ISIS’s approach to historical conservation and the scenes where Bobby visits Darrell’s garage to find his car dismantled into ever-smaller pieces are comedy gold.  “Darrell,” laments Bobby, “40,000 people die every day.  How come you’re not one of ’em?”


© Tri-Star Pictures

© Tri-Star Pictures


Cranking Bobby’s blood-pressure level even higher are the occasional appearances of a blind half-Indian vagrant who pushes a shopping trolley containing a dead dog.  Played by Jon Voight, this blind vagrant has apparently made it his mission to wind Bobby up, uttering statements both gnomic and annoying: for example, “Your lies are old.  But you tell ’em pretty good.”


Can things get any worse for Bobby?  Yes, they can.  For he also has to endure the company of a delinquent called Toby N. Tucker, played by Joaquin Phoenix – “People round here call me TNT.  You know why?”  “Because they’re not very imaginative?” “Cause I’m just like dynamite, boy, and when I go off somebody gets hurt!” – and his girlfriend Jenny, played by Claire Danes.  Between them, TNT and Jenny don’t have two braincells to rub together.  Jenny keeps trying in her artless way to flirt with Bobby, who doesn’t want to touch her with a bargepole; and TNT keeps taking umbrage and threatening Bobby with violence.  The scenes with Penn, Phoenix and Danes are even funnier than the scenes with Penn and Thornton.  At one point in a diner, while Patsy Cline sings from the jukebox, Jenny muses: “I just love her.  I wonder how she don’t put out no more new records.”  To which a disgruntled Bobby retorts: “Because she’s dead.”  “Oh, that’s sad.  Don’t that make you sad?”  “I’ve had time to get over it.”


© Tri-Star Pictures


Later, there’s a hilarious and cathartic moment when TNT ambushes Bobby and destroys his last chance to get out of town – he snatches away the bus ticket Bobby has just bought with his last remaining money and eats it in front of him.  Bobby finally flips and beats the shit out him.


I can’t finish this entry without singing the praises of Jennifer Lopez.  As Grace, the movie’s supercharged femme fatale, she’s steamier than the surrounding Arizona landscapes and she possesses a gaze sizzling enough to fry a full-English breakfast in three minutes.  She was equally splendid in another crime thriller made the following year, the Steven Soderbergh-directed Out of Sight.  In fact, I feel it was a blow for the film world that soon after she reinvented herself as J-Lo and concentrated more on singing.  (To be honest, that was also a blow for the music world.)


© Tri-Star Pictures


U-Turn isn’t perfect.  At times, Stone’s frenetic camera-angles, point-of-view shots, editing and use of different film stocks – a hangover of the pyrotechnics he indulged in with Natural Born Killers – can be distracting.  But if you’re curious to see one of 1990s cinema’s big cheeses let his hair down and slum it a bit, if you enjoy cynical, amoral thrillers where each new character is even scummier than the last, if your mouth waters at the prospect of watching character actors like Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton, Powers Boothe, Joaquin Phoenix and Jon Voight chew up the scenery, and if you fancy discovering the greatness of Jennifer Lopez before she devoted herself to a career of causing earache, then U-Turn is for you.


And as I say, parts of it are as funny as hell.


No more riding on the storm


One item I forgot to mention two days ago when I did my round-up of the past month’s news was the passing, on May 20th, of Ray Manzarek, co-founder of and keyboardist with 1960s rock legends The Doors.  In the decades since The Doors’ heyday, much of the attention given to the band has focused on their singer, would-be shaman and (depending on your point-of-view) decadent poetic genius or pretentious head-up-his-own-arse berk, Jim Morrison.  For my money, though, Manzarek’s keyboards were more responsible for The Doors’ distinctive sound than Morrison’s vocals, darkly soulful though Morrison was when he was on form.


Maybe I’m just biased.  I’ve always had a weakness for a band who weren’t afraid to push their keyboard-sound to the forefront, such as The Stranglers, those baroque old 1970s pub-rockers who finally sneaked into the British charts by pretending to be punks; or the Inspiral Carpets, third-place contenders – very distant third – for the title of Greatest Madchester Band in the late 1980s, after the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays.


When you listen to a Doors song like Riders on the Storm and ignore Morrison’s half-baked lyrics, you realise how much of its drive, atmosphere and all-round eeriness is derived from Manzarek’s keyboard-playing.  And it makes you realise that there’s a case to be made for the idea that The Doors were the world’s first Goth band – in fact, Riders on the Storm conjures up more genuine spookiness in a few minutes than any number of later, affirmed Goth bands (see Gene Loves Jezebel, Alien Sex Fiend et al) managed to do in their entire careers.


I’m too young, believe it or not, to remember The Doors when they were together.  I suspect like many people my age, I only became properly aware of them in 1991 when Oliver Stone released his much-hyped film about them.  Stone did his usual thing when telling the band’s story, i.e. he simplified, omitted, embroidered, exaggerated and at times downright lied.  He also added extra Red Indian shamans and – shudder! – Billy Idol.  Manzarek was particularly angry about Stone’s take on the band – not so much about the indignity of being portrayed in the film by Kyle MacLachlan in a big blonde wig, but about the unflattering light in which Morrison was presented: “It was not about Jim Morrison.  It was about Jimbo Morrison, the drunk.  God, where was the sensitive poet and the funny guy?”


Manzarek was no doubt right, and I can understand why Stone upset those people who’d actually been there at the time.  But as an interpretation of The Doors the legend, rather than The Doors the real-life band, I always thought Stone’s rumbustious, rollicking and way-over-the-top movie was pretty entertaining.  Val Kilmer is, of course, brilliant as Morrison, and – something that the critics seemed to miss – it’s also very funny.   No more so than when Morrison finds himself at a party with his long-suffering girlfriend Pamela Courson (Meg Ryan) and his rock-journalist piece on the side Patricia Kennealy (Kathleen Quinlan) and, hoping for the best, tries to introduce them.  Courson’s response (“My God, Jim, you actually stick your dick in this thing?”) indicates it isn’t going to work.


Maybe the reason why The Doors-the-movie is so divorced from reality is because Oliver Stone started listening to the band whilst serving amid the chaos and carnage of the Vietnam War – after that experience, he couldn’t give them a conventional biographical treatment.  Vietnam has been described as ‘the first rock ‘n’ roll war’ and the Doors, with their trippy on-the-edge sound and vaguely dangerous undercurrents were the perfect Vietnam-War band.  No wonder Francis Ford Coppola used The End, their paean to patricide and incest, for the brilliant seven-minute opening sequence of Apocalypse Now (1979).  Here it is: