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U Turn is a 1997 crime film directed by Oliver Stone, based on the book Stray Dogs by John Ridley. It stars Sean Penn, Billy Bob Thornton, Jennifer Lopez, Jon Voight, Powers Boothe, Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes and Nick Nolte. The plot concerns a drifter named Bobby (Sean Penn) who ends up entangled in a plot involving a Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez) and her husband Jake (Nick Nolte), also finding himself in conflict with the town mechanic named Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton). Bobby owes a large amount of money which he is currently transporting to California. His car breaks down however, forcing him to drive to the nearest town, Superior, Arizona. He takes the money with him but leaves his gun in the trunk of his car. While waiting for his car to be fixed, he wanders around the town where he meets Grace. Not realising she is married, he hits on her and helps her carry some drapes to her car. She offers to take him back to her house where he can have a shower. While in the shower, it is revealed that the 'accident' that happened to his hand was in fact a punishment for the overdue debt - two of his fingers were cut off.
Similar to Natural Born Killers in style, the film includes black & white inserts, frequent use of hand-held cameras, overexposed shots, vivid close-ups, zip-switches from smooth to grainy, unique camera angles, time-lapse sequences, and hallucinogenic effects. Stone rounded up some of his Nixon crew to establish the technical aspects of the film, including director of photography Robert Richardson, production designer Victor Kempster, and editors Hank Corwin and Thomas Nordberg. The crew shot U Turn in just 42 days, entirely on location in the actual town of Superior, Arizona, fully utilizing the vast landscape. According to the film's production information, the filmmakers revamped four blocks of Superior's main street, even creating new restaurants out of unused storefronts.
In the film (based on the novel Stray Dogs), Sean Penn delivers a harrowing, convincing performance as Bobby Cooper, a drifter headed to Las Vegas in order to pay off a gambling debt to Russian gangsters. He's behind on his dues, however. The mob has already cut off two of his fingers because he was two weeks late.
While traveling down the open desert highway, catching some wind from behind the wheel of his red convertible, his car's radiator hose busts. He must quickly get to the nearest town, and that happens to be Superior, Arizona, a desolate mining town on the edge of nowhere. Bobby pulls into the only gas station within 50 miles, where a greasy, hick mechanic named Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton) offers some friendly advice to check out the town while he fixes his car. Desperate and bored, Bobby takes the journey into the heart of Superior. That's his first mistake.
Once in the town, Bobby meets an odd ensemble of civilians. A blind but prudent Native American (Jon Voight) offers a few words of wisdom. The luring sight of a sexy, inquiring woman named Grace McKeena (Jennifer Lopez) gets Bobby into a problematic situation with her real estate baron husband, Jake (Nick Nolte). The scattering town sheriff (Powers Boothe) prevents a fight between Bobby and a macho young man named TNT (Joaquin Phoenix), over ditzy teen dream Jenny (Claire Danes). Then, out of increasingly bizarre and uneventful circumstances, Bobby becomes trapped in the town, with several characters aggressively persuing his services, sexuality, and money. As the stakes increase and tensions rise, things only travel down hill.
U Turn evolves into an intriguing tale of immorality, murder, and relationships. The vast variety of characters each poke at different areas of Bobby's morality. Although Penn's character never chooses this path, Jon Voight's character serves as the morally straight conscience of Bobby. Bobby picks Grace over Jenny, which explains that he likes his women sophisticated and mysterious, rather than flamboyant and talky. Both women are involved with other men, of course. TNT and Jake provide complications later in the plot, sometimes motivated, sometimes pointless. The town's sheriff acts like God, an all-seeing eye, often scooping Bobby out of trouble -- but not all the time. The movie provides no easy answers for Bobby. Ultimately, he makes his own choices, and digs his own grave.
Provocative and graphic, U Turn is not for all audiences. Many blew the movie off as pointless, without aim or direction, all style and no substance. I disagree. The movie does have a point. It examines the mind of an immoral man. Throughout his journey into Superior, Arizona, he faces trials, tribulations, and encounters people who provide him with choices, but do not decide his fate.
This is not a film for younger viewers, although it does show that negative consequences follow bad decisions. Naturally, Stone washes the material excessively in blood, gore, sex, and violence. He paints the most extreme outcome in every situation. Nonetheless, Stone gets his point across. Bobby learns his lesson. If given another chance, I think it's a safe gamble that Bobby would choose a different route, on the road and in life.