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Oliver Stone's U-Turn will leave you dizzy

By Susan Ellis and Hadley Hury

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  Director Oliver Stone is a man who needs a purpose. Whether it is to tear down legends or build up conspiracy theories, his goal is to take his subject and pump it up so that it appears bigger than all of us. His latest, U-Turn, is more of the same, though there is no political figure or war to wax grandiose about. Instead, he sets his sights simply on the duplicity of man and his bleakest survival instincts.

At the dead center of U-Turn is Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn), an eight-fingered lug making his way through the Arizona desert to pay off a gambling debt in Las Vegas. A busted radiator forces him to stop in the tiny, broken town of Superior, where he meets up with its brutally odd citizenry. Among them are Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez), a beautiful tease with a horrible story, and her husband Jake (Nick Nolte), a happily tortured real estate agent who has a taste for the ungodly.

Knowing that Bobby is in financial straits, Jake offers him the job of killing his wife for the insurance money. In turn, Grace asks him to kill Jake so that they can raid his secret stash. Bobby claims to not have the stomach for murder, but when push comes to shove, somebody has to go.

The elements of murder, a beautiful woman, an ugly husband, and an outsider with bad timing all play into film noir, which is how Stone labels the film. But he lacks the constraint for noir's stylishness and goes, instead, for the punch in the gut. Working from the screenplay by John Ridley, based on his novel Stray Dogs, Stone unleashes rather than unwinds the plot and swaps intrigue and romance for road kill and masturbation.

At this point in his career, Stone works pretty much in a genre of his own making. He's not afraid to whack at the boundaries of convention or to experiment. U-Turn, shot by longtime Stone cinematographer Robert Richardson, has a bright, throw-back look, which, when paired with the hokey score by Ennio Morricone, intensifies the sense that Bobby's stepped into an alternative reality. The wealth of oddball characters -- Billy Bob Thornton as the mechanic, Claire Danes as a dumb-as-dirt teenage hussy, and Jon Voight as a pseudo-wise blind man -- add to Superior's suffocating atmosphere.

Yet, for all of the tricks of Stone's sleeve, U-Turn becomes grueling as the destruction piles up. By the end of the movie, when Bobby finally leaves Superior a bloody mess, you can't help but feel a little battered yourself. -- Susan Ellis

You can forgive audience members for giggling during Kiss the Girls. Not that the plot of Kiss the Girls is in any way funny, it's just that this film plods along, making such unfortunate misturns, it seems unreasonable to take it too seriously.

Kiss the Girls stars Morgan Freeman as Alex Cross, forensic detective and best-selling author. Before he can pat himself on the back for preventing a suicide in his home base of Washington, D.C., he's called down to Durham, North Carolina, to investigate the disappearance of his niece. It turns out that his niece is just one of a number of women who have been kidnapped by a predator who calls himself Casanova. Cross consults with the local police and the FBI, but mostly works on his own when he realizes that there is no rhyme or reason to the order in which Casanova kills his victims.

A break in the case comes in the form of Kate Mctiernan (Ashley Judd), a doctor and one of Casanova's victims who managed to escape alive. Because she was drugged and traumatized, Kate initially isn't much help. But the guilt over her leaving the other women behind drives her to devote herself to tracking down Casanova. So with Kate in tow, Cross traverses the country and back again to track down Casanova before he kills again.

Kiss the Girls is directed by Gary Fleder (Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead) and based on the novel by James Patterson. While Fleder starts the movie creepily enough, he loses the momentum. This really isn't his fault, nor is it the fault of the principal players. Though Freeman puts little flair into Cross, he does give an adequate performance, and Judd has a good turn as the strong, smart Kate. It's the story that pulls everyone down. Plot turns make unlikely demands on Kate and Cross, who act profoundly stupid for two people who are doctors. Details are introduced, then dropped, never to be heard of again, and when the killer goes bicoastal, it's just too much to ask.

So the audience laughs a little during Kiss the Girls. At least they're paying attention. -- S.E.

The Peacemaker, directed by Mimi Leder and starring Nicole Kidman and George Clooney, is the first product from Dreamworks SKG studio (a.k.a. Spielberg, Katzenberg, and Geffen). A breathless thriller involving nuclear warheads and a variety of chase scenes in locales around the world, the film is a testament to the wonders of film technology and firepower. It is also relatively smart -- wild plot improbabilities and impossibly tarted-up hardware are kept to a minimum. The viewer is dazzled sufficiently by the mechanisms and the mind set of international intelligence.

The two stars are attractive, but neither is particularly suited to this sort of thing. Kidman's Dr. Julia Kelly is acting head of the White House Nuclear Smuggling Group, and the actor's version of what such high-falutin' professionalism means plays to her major weakness. She comes off as a testy know-it-all. Kidman has an aloof, cerebral quality on screen; she'll never be a major-scale star. Her qualities can work quite effectively in certain material, but this isn't it. Similarly, the laconic Clooney is an actor whose low-key, pensive good looks require the camera to come to him. Here, constantly on the run -- and unlike his work on television's ER -- he has few opportunities to pull viewers in to his low-key appeal.

The "dream team" needs to come up with something more satisfying than this if they're to live up to their own hype. There are things we may admire in this high-powered first effort -- things, especially, that will impress action-film fans -- but there is very little about it that has the power to move us. -- Hadley Hury

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