A handsomely stylish, semi-punk, drug-culture updating of the wronged-man's-revenge film noir plot, "The Salton Sea" has one of the most enticingly, quintessentially film noir opening scenes I've ever seen.
Picture this: Val Kilmer, dressed as a hep cat who just finished a gig at a downtown jazz club, sits on the floor of his burning apartment. Leaning on a wall, silhouetted against the orange flames, he's playing his trumpet and bleeding -- possibly to death -- from a gunshot wound. A bag full of money lies beside him with wads of bills spilling out onto the floor beside him.
"My name is Tom Van Allen. Or Danny Parker. I honestly don't know any more," he breathes in a honeyed, genre-perfect voice-over. "You can decide -- yeah, maybe you can help me, friend. You can help me decide who I am. Avenging Angel? Judas Iscariot? Loving husband? Trumpet player? Speed freak?"
"Yeah, speed's a good place to start...," he sighs as the film jumps into a rapidly-edited crash course in the history of methamphetamines from their development in 1930s Japan to their use (as Dexedrine) by 1950s housewives to the government crackdown in the 1960s to an exploding meth lab in a suburban cul de sac.
But that striking scene was penned by Tony Gayton, the screenwriter behind last week's thrill-killer cat-and-mouse disappointment "Murder by Numbers" -- and these two movies have a lot in common. Most importantly and most unfortunately, they're both sunk by hackneyed Hollywood endings that nearly negate all the absorbing performances, interesting twists and razor-sharp direction that precede them.
In "Salton Sea," Kilmer stars a late-blooming punker and speed addict who was once a happily married musician with a normal life. In between sometimes darkly funny scenes of him getting high in a trashed house full of his dull-witted junkie buddies, the drug-addled but still sharp Kilmer explains via voice-over and chilling, palpable flashback that his beautiful wife was killed in a drug deal gone wrong at a roadside dive where they'd stopped to use the bathroom while on a vacation.
Emotionally torched by the experience, hungry for street justice and seeking to relieve his self-imposed guilt, he set out on a mission: delve headlong into the world from which his wife's killers came, root them out and kill them.
Of course, in a proper noir thriller -- even one as slick, gritty and modern as this -- it's never that simple. "The Salton Sea" has a plot full of twists upon knots that involves dubious, dangerous social delinquents, cops gone bad and a nonstop parade of mock-Tarantino scuzbag types that starts out clever but veers into overkill.
When director DJ Caruso (who has helmed episodes of TV's "Smallville" and "The Shield") isn't turning a spotlight on showy secondary characters -- like Pooh Bear (Vincent D'Onofrio), the oafish yahoo and violent drug dealer with no nose and a fixation for recreating the Kennedy assassination with pigeons in radio-controlled toy cars -- he's busy developing a palatably dingy, permanent-sunset ambiance with unique, conceptual, noir-on-narcotics imagery.
Caruso has an eye for flavorful atmospheric details and inventive transitions into flashbacks. He allows the story to unfold in layers, sometimes asking more questions than he answers about Kilmer's motives and state of mind -- which keeps the audience on its toes.
Besides being a superb fatalistic narrator, Kilmer gives his character's pain extra depth by digging around in memories of the fear that froze him in his tracks during his wife's murder and by exploring the part of him that finds sharp relief in the numbness of being a junkie.
In addition Kilmer and the versatile D'Onofrio ("The Cell," "Men In Black"), "The Salton Sea" boasts a choice supporting cast of character actors, including chameleonic Peter Sarsgaard ("Boys Don't Cry," "Center of the World") as Kilmer's dopiest druggie pal, Deborah Kara Unger as a trashy femme fatale, Anthony LaPaglia and Doug Hutchison as Machiavellian cops, Luis Guzman, Adam Goldberg, Meat Loaf Aday and Danny Trejo. If you don't know these names, trust me, you know their faces and they're all great at what they do.
But Caruso and Gayton are far too enamoured of the film's labored sideshow eccentrics. They ignore a couple inherent concept flaws (Kilmer's mohawk that can convert back to a everyman hairstyle should be a dead giveaway to the punks that he's a poser). Then they almost willfully torpedo all their vivid and resourceful -- if over-conceptualized -- filmmaking with an improbable and unoriginal climax that relies on an absurdly complicated plan for vengeance and the intelligence insulting, cinematically enhanced convenience of the bullet-proof vest.
Run time: 103 mins
In Theaters: Friday 21st June 2002
Box Office USA: $0.6M
Box Office Worldwide: $676.7 thousand
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Production compaines: Darkwoods Productions, Castle Rock Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 62%
Fresh: 53 Rotten: 32
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: DJ Caruso
Starring: Val Kilmer as Tom Van Allen and Danny Parker, Vincent D'Onofrio as Pooh-Bear, Adam Goldberg as Kujo, Luis Guzmán as Quincy, Doug Hutchison as Gus Morgan, Anthony LaPaglia as Al Garcetti, Glenn Plummer as Bobby, Peter Sarsgaard as Jimmy the Finn, Deborah Kara Unger as Colette, Chandra West as Liz, BD Wong as Bubba, R. Lee Ermey as Verne Plummer, Shalom Harlow as Nancy, Shirley Knight as Nancy Plummer, Meat Loaf as Bo
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