Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) is driving through Arizona, the desert specifically, and enjoying the trip thanks to the drink and drugs he is taking, but then mishap strikes as the sports car suffers engine trouble. It limps into the nearest garage in the small town of Superior where he finds the mechanic (Billy Bob Thornton) and persuades him to take a look at the problem, but the mechanic tells him it will take him all afternoon to get to grips with it, leaving Cooper at a loose end. It's typical, he was on his way to pay off a debt that has already seen him lose two fingers and his tennis career, and he would finally have been free of his issues, but it looks like bad luck cannot leave him alone...
After a run of bombastic nineteen-nineties hits, director Oliver Stone settled on making a smaller film with a no less starry cast, which promptly flopped, thus effectively ending his run of box office success. He would have middling hits subsequently, but thereafter became largely known for his name and his aggressive political stance as he did for his film work, which would include precisely that stance. Yet with U Turn, there was none of the point-scoring that characterised much of the other entries in his filmography, as more or less this was his updating of the classic film noir format to a nineties approach, something that was highly popular in the Hollywood of that decade.
To an extent, the fatalism that film noir depicted was well-suited to Stone, who delivered a "shit happens" mood to the proceedings that was keen to antagonise its protagonist as far as possible, so much so that you could be forgiven for thinking the director believed he was creating a comedy here. It was accurate to observe a certain bleak humour in the twists and turns of that plot, which was determined not to let Cooper off the hook as he became trapped in Superior, its inhabitants finding an endless series of ways to wind him up to snapping point. There was a very fine cast performing in these quasi-caricatured roles, overqualified in some cases, you may suspect.
Not that anyone here begrudged the opportunity to let their hair down in what amounted to pulp fiction of a sort Quentin Tarantino had firmly set in vogue three or four years before, though stories reached the press of Stone and Penn, two talents who had very clear views of how they wished to go about things, clashing daily. You would detect little of this on the screen as they each appeared to be on the same page, and the notion of them arguing till blue in the face over plot points and character choices seemed absurd in light of how closely this hewed to well-mounted trash cinema, but perhaps a little friction behind the scenes was not too bad for a thriller. It was there in Penn's performance, a combination of nervy intensity and world-weary resignation that the fates were conspiring against him.
The main plot strand led Cooper to Jennifer Lopez as Grace, trophy wife of local businessman Nick Nolte, and at two different times they requested Cooper to help them out by murdering the other, with the promise of a hefty bonus in cold, hard cash the carrot dangled before him: when his own stash of cash goes AWOL, it was almost classical in its structure for a hero dragged down into Hell by his flaws and those flaws of the people around him that he was powerless to resist. Also showing up were Powers Boothe as the local lawman who turns up whenever it looks like Cooper will not escape his trouble, until... well, that would be telling; Joaquin Phoenix and Claire Danes as a young couple driven by his pathological jealousy; and Jon Voight in a "why is he here?" role as a blind beggar and Vietnam War veteran (because it was an Oliver Stone flick). Some found this too frustrating to watch, others disliked how it punished Cooper way past the stage of being sensible, but in its overblown manner, U Turn was preferable to many of its maker's message films. Eccentric score by Ennio Morricone.
Didactic, aggressive and in-your-face American writer-director who, after directing a couple of horrors (Seizure and The Hand) and writing Midnight Express and Scarface, settled into his own brand of political state-of-the-nation films like Salvador, the Oscar-winning Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. Slightly out of character were The Doors and U-Turn: respectively, a celebration of the late sixties and a sweaty thriller. In 2004 he experienced his biggest flop with Alexander, a historical epic, but followed it with the reverent World Trade Center and a biopic of then just-leaving President George W. Bush. A belated sequel to Wall Street and gangster movie Savages were next. Say what you like, he has made his mark and loads of people have an opinion on him.