The sweet revenge of a man left for dead comes at the end of a sharp, shiny hook.
U Turn. 1997. Directed by Oliver Stone. Screenplay by John Ridley, from his book Stray Dogs.
Starring Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, Jon Voight, Powers Boothe, Laurie Metcalf & Liv Tyler. Phoenix Pictures/Illusion Entertainment Group/Clyde Is Hungry Films/Canal+ Droits Audiovisuels.
Rated R. 125 minutes.
Oliver Stone is an acquired taste. Always has been. I’m sure if I’d been a teenager when films like Platoon or later Natural Born Killers came out (almost made it for that second one), he would’ve been a filmmaker I’d flock to theatres for, over and over. He has a rebellious spirit. Perhaps why, when I was a teenager I eventually made my way into his filmography. In fact, going to film school when I did was partially inspired by Stone, whose movies and style I always found chaotic, vivid, and never less than incredibly interesting. So I devoured everything he ever made. Not to say each single movie is a masterpiece – no filmmaker is flawless – but he has an amazingly solid track record. His war-related pictures are rarely matched in intensity, and scope. Movies like Natural Born Killers and even The Doors are odd rides through madness, equally intense and every bit as intriguing as his political work.
U Turn falls into that second category – the weird and the wild. An adaptation of John Ridley’s novel Stray Dogs, this movie is quite different in story and plot than most of Stone’s previous films. Usually we see Stone take on, as I said, war or politics, often edging towards realism and many times based off actual true events. Yet this movie goes into completely fictional territory, though apparently the original book is loosely based on a real story about a drifter who wandered into a town and disappeared forever. Either way, Ridley’s story plays well with Stone and his style of filmmaking. Their forces combine into a fucked up movie that you won’t soon forget.
With Russian mafia on his tail, Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) is heading to Las Vegas. He needs to pay off a big debt, fast. Only trouble is, on the way over the highway Bobby encounters car trouble. This strands him out in a small town named Superior, Arizona. Even worse, the whole place is filled with quirky, and sometimes dangerous, characters with whom he has a varied number of encounters. Things start out weird enough, then slowly everything spirals into darkness. Coming across a beautiful young woman named Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez), Bobby believes he’s hit the jackpot. But then her husband Jake (Nick Nolte) arrives, catching them almost in bed together. Afterwards, Jake finds Bobby on the road and offers him a ride; as well as offers him thousands and thousands of dollars to kill Grace.
The nail in the coffin comes when Bobby ends up between a couple robbers and a grocery store clerk. His bag full of money gets blown away in the resulting gunfight, which puts him at even worse odds than the beginning. Expecting the mafia to find him, Bobby tries his best to get out of Superior.
Except it isn’t ever that easy, is it? Not for a guy like Bobby.
I’ve always love Stone’s frenetic, quick cut, quick edit style. Here, though, it may be on its best form. Honestly. The way he gives us the scene, but then edits and cuts bits and pieces around it from the same dialogue, the same scene, this technique almost puts us right in the place of Bobby Cooper. He’s seeing these people, talking to them. Simultaneously, Stone cuts these different reactions, often manic-like actions and laughter, which sort of paints these people as two-faced, strange, weird; all of which they certainly are. Sort of makes this a very unsettling movie, in that way. Each character is like a different breed, one you can never for sure get hold of, and at the same time you almost really know these people, especially if you come from a smaller area like myself. These small town, almost hickish people are recognizable, albeit strange and oddly curious, too. Either way, the technique Stone uses draws us into the web of these characters in an impressive, low-key sense.
The soundtrack and score, as usual for Stone, are lots of fun. We’ve got everything on the soundtrack from Johnny Cash to Peggy Lee, Sammi Smith (singing a song by Kris Kristofferson), to Ween and Gloria Lynne. Can’t forget the weird score to match all the other weirdness, by none other than Ennio Morricone. To be totally honest, I’ve seen this film about 20 times, or more, and I never once realized it was Morricone who did the composing. He’s a true talent, a varied and eclectic musician if there ever were one in the film industry. His music is a perfect addition to this plethora of oddities. At times, it makes things feel like a funhouse, right out in the open Arizona sun. Others, there’s a charming noir feel to the strings in the background, plucking away, ratcheting up the suspense and the tension. Great use of score and soundtrack, which again I often come to expect from a guy like Stone. He usually collaborates well with other artists.
The acting is top notch. A dark and comic cast of characters comes to life here. Penn does a great down-and-out performance, Bobby Cooper on the edge of oblivion, already missing a couple fingers and hoping not to have to give up any more. Though I find Penn a bit nuts as a person, I dig his acting and he’s a favourite of mine. Then, Nolte and Boothe each add a sort of veteran feel to the cast, men who’ve been in all sorts of movies giving their best to these odd little small town folks; Nolte is vicious and conniving, while Boothe is tough and stand-offish. Even J-Lo gives us a decent effort. And Claire Danes is around for a little bit, playing a hilarious, cute character, which adds just another dash of flavour to the pot.
Above everyone else, I have to mention two special names for putting in incredible work, albeit in relatively small, not even supporting roles: Joaquin Phoenix and Billy Bob Thornton. First, Phoenix plays Toby N. Tucker – a.k.a TNT – and this is such a nice role, lots of quirk, plus there’s a simmering charisma to the character. Even if he is an asshole. Yet it’s Billy Bob who truly shines, packing on at least 20-30 pounds to play a mechanic named Darrell who may be a bit slow, but certainly ain’t stupid. He has a way of speaking, a way of moving. Really, for such a small character Thornton leaned in hard and brought this one off the page. Again, these are touches which add the right amount to an already interesting story.
I’ve always considered U Turn a 5-star slice of cinema. It’s sort of trashy, and at the same time there is a great neo-noir thriller with a peppering of black comedy thrown in at every corner. While many probably dismissed this movie upon release, and plenty have/still do after, every time I get the chance I’ll watch it. There’s a sexy dangerousness about so many parts in the film. At the same time, the odd nature of the town, the characters, everything comes across completely, madly, and chaos fills just about every last frame. There’s not a single scene I don’t love and every watch of U Turn unsettles, disturbs and enthralls me. Leaving it ’till now to watch? Do yourself a favour. Pop this on, have a fucking weird night.
Event Horizon. 1997. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Screenplay by Philip Eisner.
Starring Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy, Jason Isaacs, and Sean Pertwee. Golar Productions/Impact Pictures/Paramount Pictures.
Rated R. 96 minutes.
There are some excellent horror films which take place in space. For instance, I’d consider Alien as science fiction, but definitely with a great deal of horror involved. More recently there’s Pandorum, which I enjoy a ton and there are nice horror moments in that one, as well. In the found footage sub-genre, Apollo 18 has lots of creepy sci-fi/horror-ish stuff to offer. Even classics like Mario Bava’s fantastic Planet of the Vampires come into the sci-fi realm crossing with horror.
Of course there’s also terrible stuff like Leprechaun 4: In Space, Jason X, the live-action version of Doom, John Carpenter’s rare misfire Ghosts of Mars, and even worse horror movies crossed with space
misdaventures such as the dreadful Inseminoid.
In my opinion, Event Horizon falls in with the former category of science fiction horror. Specifically the stuff taking place in space. Not only is the sci-fi angle of the film incredibly interesting and a lot of fun (I have no idea if any science within is accurate and could care less; it’s a movie), there’s a ton of horror – and I mean a TON! If you can’t get into this film, even a little, then that’s sad because I always look forward to putting this one on if I need to get creeped out… in space.
In 2047, a rescue vessel is sent to a find the Event Horizon spaceship which disappeared seven years ago. Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne), along with his crew, and designer of the lost ship Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill) are along for the ride. Adjusting to deep space travel, Weir settles in amongst a group who don’t particularly want him there, nor do they want to be there themselves; this rescue mission took them off a scheduled break from time in space. Things get worse once they locate the Event Horizon.
Aboard the lost-now found ship, one of the crew members gets sucked into a portal created by the experimental gravity drive at the heart of the vessel, which comes alive suddenly and on its own. After he comes back, and a shockwave rocks the rescue ship, everyone is forced to board the Event Horizon.
What follows is a descent into madness and the depths of Hell itself far from the safety of Earth, in the dark and lonely confines of space’s outer reaches.
Something I noticed in this film was the great prosthetic work. From the first time we see some noticeable prosthetics, as a dead body with significant injury and decay floats into the view of Kathleen Quinlan’s character Peters, I knew the makeup work all around – from the blood and gore stuff to dead bodies and other such elements – would be well executed.
Lots of interesting stuff happening from Duncan Jarman, whose resume includes some of my favourites such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Beach, The Hours, The Last Samurai, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Valhalla Rising, Biutiful, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1/2; if that’s not enough he’s done work on two upcoming films I’m aching to see, In the Heart of the Sea and The Revenant. And he’s but one of the makeup department; plenty others worked their asses off, too.
The special makeup effects are solid. Some genuinely upsetting visceral stuff. Again, poor Peters (Quinlan) gets a big first dose, as she sees her son in a vision while in the Event Horizon’s medical lab – his legs are basically rotting, the flesh beginning to slop off his bones, bloody in patches. Not too long afterwards, Captain Miller (Fishburne) sees his own vision of a man on fire; incredible work on this brief moment.
As Justin (Jack Noseworthy) runs into his predicament with “the dark inside [him]”, the effects kick in with some nice blood and gore. There’s also an awesome shot of Justin’s veins bulging out massively through the skin on his arms, which I found – though brief – very cool.
Another impressive aspect of Event Horizon is the set design. There’s a constant flow of amazing set pieces making up the spaceship, which helps to add a haunted house style setup to the film. Because essentially that’s what this is – a haunted house horror movie located in space, on a ship in a deep region. The whole of angle of Christian Hell comes into play, as D.J. (Jason Isaacs) decodes the message from the Event Horizon before it went completely dark for seven years. Set design can help a film or kill it; here, it truly elevates the whole aesthetic. Inside the Event Horizon especially, I cannot get enough of its entire design. Very sinister and creepy with this vast sense of isolation in this large corridors and rooms. The gravity drive itself is sort of Hell-ish looking, like something you’d imagine Pinhead might have sitting on his desk at home, at the office. Lots of this type of thing happening, which makes the set design something great and a major element to why I find the creepiness so effective in a lot of scenes.
I’m not overly impressed with the dialogue in the screenplay, nor am I thrilled by any of the performances that much. Both Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill are favourites of mine – the former in just about everything, particularly his latest turn in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal as Jack Crawford; same goes for the latter, Neill is awesome in everything from his portrayal of Dr. Grant in Jurassic Park to his wonderful role in John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. That being said, even these two aren’t incredible here, no more than you’d expect from anyone else honestly. They’ve definitely put in much better work elsewhere, but they’re not bad here either. Simply, it isn’t the acting which brings me to Event Horizon.
Ultimately, it’s the makeup effects/special effects, the prosthetics work, and so on, which impresses me. Not to mention I do enjoy the screenplay, just not so much the characterization or the performances which came out of it. But I love the story and the plot themselves as a whole. I think one of my only big criticisms here is that I could’ve maybe used another 15 minutes to tack on some bits and pieces to certain characters, such as Captain Miller (Fishburne) and Weir (Neill). They had a bit of time, not near enough. Particularly Weir, as he comes to be even more important to the Event Horizon ship than we’re initially led to believe. If we had another 15 minutes, there could’ve been a bit of extra time dedicated to Weir and helped to flesh things out a little more. My beef is that things feel a bit rushed, like the lead-up to Weir’s involvement with the Event Horizon’s evil side sort of came as an afterthought – I feel like Philip Eisner, the screenwriter, was going with the ship itself doing all the awful stuff then later put Weir in as being the villain eventually. It could’ve worked better, that’s all I’m saying. The way it is in the final product feels slightly contrived; easily fixed by giving the subplot a bit more time to stretch its legs.
All in all, I’m willing to say, for me, this is a 4 out of 5 star film. I honestly don’t like anything else from Paul W.S. Anderson, except the guilty pleasure I get from his version of Mortal Kombat. So I’m glad to say that I honestly love this movie. There are definitely flaws – I think the writing for Cooper (Richard T. Jones) was absolutely pitiful, which is unfortunate because I think Jones has a ton of charisma and he’s like a slightly younger version of Denzel Washington; underused and under appreciated as an almost “token black guy” role that could have easily been written better.
Aside from that, the makeup effects are out of this world (sorry for that lame unintended space pun), the story and plot are creepy, and there are two good actors (though not at the very top of their games; still good) to give this science fiction horror romp a nice edge. I suggest if you’ve not seen it, do so soon! Great way to quench your thirst for a genuinely well done horror which happens to take place in space. Enjoy, and if you have any sensible, civil comments please feel free to drop them below and we’ll have a chat about this bit of underrated ’90s sci-fi/horror.