U Turn (1997)

I never had much interest in Oliver Stone as a filmmaker, but I have plenty lingering fascination with Jennifer Lopez as an actor.  Besides her career-making role portraying pop idol Selena in an eponymous biopic and her music video performances of her own dance club hits, Lopez is most often thought of as a romcom actor – the kind of beautiful but relatable sweetheart archetype usually played by Julia Roberts & Sandra Bullock.  Maybe I’ve just happened to see one too many TV broadcasts of titles like The Wedding Planner, Monster-in-Law, and Maid in Manhattan, but I always feel like Lopez’s filmography as an actor is culturally misremembered for being lighter & breezier than it actually is.  Early in her career, Lopez worked on some fairly daring, hard-edged thrillers, most notably Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, Tarsem’s The Cell, and Stone’s sunlit neo-noir U Turn.  Maybe the wide cultural revulsion towards her gangster hangout comedy Gigli (which admittedly deserves the scorn) made Lopez a lot more careful in choosing daring, divisive projects.  Or maybe Hollywood producers foolishly overlooked her enduring sex appeal as she aged, redistributing her early sex-symbol thriller roles to the next hungry twentysomething down the line and, in the case of Hustlers, roping her in as their mentor.  I don’t have a firm handle on how or why Jennifer Lopez slowly softened the overall tone of her filmography, but I do know that it was exciting to pick up a DVD copy of 1997’s U Turn at a local thrift store, my ambivalence towards its director be damned.  It felt like a lost dispatch from JLo’s grittier, thrillier past, one that thankfully did not repeat the intensely sour notes of my recent, ill-advised thrift store purchase of Gigli.

The overbearing Oliver Stoneness of U Turn is impossible to ignore.  Stone shoots its American desert setting with the same hyperactive, multimedia style that he pushed past its limits in Natural Born Killers, violently alternating between handheld music video angles, flashes of black & white film grain, and the drunken fish-eye perspective of a 1990s breakfast cereal commercial.  Fortunately, it’s an improved revision of that distinctive NBK excess, slowing down and spacing out each stylistic flourish so that the intentionally bumpy ride isn’t so unintentionally shrill.  Sean Penn stars opposite JLo as the doomed lovers on this particular crime spree, except the spree is a nonstarter and the romance is a con job.  While smuggling a duffel bag stuffed with overdue loan money to the impatient Vegas gangsters he owes, Penn blows his muscle car engine in rural Arizona, forcing the self-described big city “slimy bastard” to spend a sunburnt eternity with small-town hicks he openly despises.  Juaquin Phoenix, Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Voight, Claire Danes, and Powers Booth put in over-the-top caricature performances as the local lunatics who torment Penn as the universe at large seemingly conspires to block his exit.  Only Jennifer Lopez & Nick Nolte matter much to the narrative, though, playing Penn’s femme fatale seductress and her abusive, “slimy bastard” husband.  Both spouses attempt to seduce Penn into killing each other for a cut of the insurance money, but only one is nuclear-hot enough to win him over to her side.  Penn & Lopez’s murderous “romance” is mostly a nonstop back & forth of double-triple-quadruple crossings as they repeatedly backstab each other in their selfish attempts to escape their respective prisons: Penn’s small-town purgatory and Lopez’s abusive marriage.  It’s basically Oliver Stone’s 90s-era update to the classic Poverty Row noir Detour, which Stone makes glaringly obvious by including multiple shots of “DETOUR” road signs framed from zany music video angles.

There’s a lot of poorly aged, Oliver Stoney bullshit to wade through here, from the long list of shitheel contributors (Penn chief among them) to their casual cross-racial casting, to the post-Tarantino antihero crassness of the “slimy bastard” gangsters at the forefront.  I was most bothered by the lengthy, onscreen depictions of misogynist violence that Lopez suffers, both because it’s frustratingly common to what young Hollywood actress are offered (before they become chipper romcom darlings) and because it feels sleazily, unforgivably eroticized.  A more thematically focused, purposeful version of U Turn would only allow bad things to happen to Penn, since its sense of cosmic menace is built entirely on his impossible, Exterminating Angel style mission to speed away from rural Arizona.  Lopez makes the most of her role as the horned-up victim turned manipulative seductress, but it’s all in service of a tired misogynist trope.  Luckily, Stone makes up for the scatterbrained, unfocused themes of his writing (alongside screenwriter & source material novelist John Ridley) in the scatterbrained, unfocused visuals of his direction.  He shoots roadside buzzards from the low angles & wide lenses of a Beastie Boys video.  He shamelessly lifts Spike Lee’s signature double-dolly shot, scores the small-towners’ grotesque bullying of Penn with cartoonish mouth-harp boings, and just generally bounces around the desert sand with nothing but expensive camera equipment and a prankster’s spirit guiding the way.  As nastily blackhearted as U Turn can be, its visual style is buoyantly playful and excitingly volatile, somehow smoothing out the jagged annoyance of Natural Born Killers into something genuinely entertaining.  It’s both a major red-flag indicator of why Jennifer Lopez might have abandoned her early collaborations with high-style auteurs and a nostalgia stoker for the more exciting, challenging work she was doing in that era. 

-Brandon Ledet

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