Modern Noir: Sean Penn in U-Turn (1997) + The Gunman (2015)

November 25, 2015 | By

It’s a peculiar coincidence that Sean Penn appeared in two of this week’s reviewed films, both of which could be described as entries in modern noir, a riff on the classic genre, updated and tweaked with other elements such as dark black humour, absurdism, and heavy action.

There’s the broad secondary and tertiary characters bordering on cartoon in Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997), new on Blu via Twilight Time, and the contemporary meanness that’s part of the revenge thriller and makes Pierre Morel’s The Gunman (2015) from Universal a modest treat.


Stone’s decision to make a small indie-styled flick in the desert was inspired, but it’s also a film whose precise genre is hard to peg down, especially for 1997 critics. Fans arguably discovered U-Turn on home video (not uncommon among modern noir) and slowly savored its brew, leavening a box office dud to a kind of batshit crazy hybrid.

Penn’s debt-ridden gambler isn’t a nice guy nor a moral guy, but the battered loser is compelling because he’s also the most normal person in a desert shithole called Superior. There’s also something disheartening & deeply affecting (at least among car fans) when he finds his lone mode of escape, a gorgeous red Mustang, resting on jacks with its innards yanked out for what’s supposed to be a straight radiator hose replacement.

It’s the first of several disastrous events that make it clear he will never leave this hell-hole; even if he dies in the process, he’ll become sinewy vulture kibble before the police get wind of what’s been seething in the crummy town and discover his cadaver.

U-Turn is also a desert noir, small sub-category where the expansive, cruel terrain seems to drive locals mad in annual increments, but turns foreigners fully nuts within days because their precious suburban DNA isn’t attuned to the nuances of deceit, and stewing in the heat and boredom of an action-free town (or as friends would call a small pocket in the middle of nowhere, “Bumblefuck”).

In the U-Turn review, I reference other desert-set noirs from the 1990s, and among earlier 1950s entries worth seeking out are Allan Dwan’s weird The River’s Edge (1957) with pouty Debra Paget, earnest Anthony Quinn, and scumbag Ray Milland; and perhaps my all-time favourite, Roy Ward Baker’s 3D desert noir Inferno (1953), a taut little gem starring Robert Ryan as a rich man left broken and stranded in the desert to die while his deceitful wife waits for circling vultures to signal his estate is poised to pass into her greedy palms.


Although based on a novel, Gunman‘s also been reported as Penn’s attempt to try out the ‘mature ass-kicker’ genre within which Liam Neeson seems firmly (and maybe permanently) ensconced – lucrative for older actors no longer getting diverse dramatic roles, but an easy career trap in being typecast as a bankable star who can attract (for a while) serious and escapist film fans to monochrome, mean-spirited tales of revenge; bleak dramas of survival in desolate locales; or globe-trotting tales where persecuted loners seek personal justice in foreign lands with the aide of former associates.

With Taken director Pierre Morel at the helm, Penn is guaranteed a film that’s as slick as Neeson’s genre debut, but this is a more accomplished, less simplistic tale, augmented by a political backdrop and a far lower use of ADD editing. Whether Morel was persuaded (or blackmailed?) to reduce his edit points and manic pacing, Gunman was perhaps misread by critics as a shallow knock-off (as if the seminal Taken was a more Shakespearean antecedent).

If one separates the obvious elemental parallels to Taken, given that film was a straight revenge meditation, Gunman is a pastiche of several noir classics done very well… at least until the ‘love conquers all’ coda.

Coming next: more stuff, and maybe a snapshot of the glitchy video effects I created for the soon-to-be-finished BSV 1172.


Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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