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SALTON SEA, THE (director: D.J. Caruso; screenwriter: Tony Gayton; cinematographer: Amir M. Mokri; editor: Jim Page; music: Gil Evans; cast: Val Kilmer (Danny/Tom), Vincent D’Onofrio (Pooh-Bear), Adam Goldberg (Kujo), Luis Guzman (Quincy), Doug Hutchison (Morgan), Anthony LaPaglia (Garcetti), Glenn Plummer (Bobby), Peter Sarsgaard (Jimmy the Finn), Deborah Kara Unger (Colette), Chandra West (Liz), Meat Loaf (Bo), Josh Todd (Big Bill); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Frank Darabont/Eriq La Salle/Ken Aguado/Butch Robinson; Warner Brothers and Castle Rock Entertainment; 2002)
“It turns out to be just another inane druggie thriller with a revenge plot.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A glum urban druggie flick about revenge and redemption. The characters are mostly “tweakers” (speed freaks). The film is set by the Salton Sea, in a seedy part of Los Angeles inhabited by low-lifes and methamphetamine users and dealers. It’s a trippy film, but the trip is through mounds of sleaze and unpleasant characters and a hellish world of despair and violence. The Salton Sea aims to be the ultimate high in sleazy drug films, but it can’t come up with a story to save itself from drowning in its own despair. What it ultimately says isn’t worth hanging out with druggies, drug dealers and corrupt narcs for a minute–never mind 100 minutes. It turns out to be just another inane druggie thriller with a revenge plot. It also exploits the drug scene by both glamorizing and condemning it in the same breath.

The exception to all this gloom and doom is the positively ridiculous comical performance by Vincent D’Onofrio as Pooh-Bear. He’s a sadistic rip-off drug dealer who lost his nose from snorting too much cocaine and wears a little plastic job, which makes him look like Pooh. He’s an overweight, over-the-top, eccentric madman, who uses a rabid badger to bite off the genitals of his betrayers. His hobby is re-enacting the JFK assassination with pigeons placed in a remote control car taking the place of Kennedy and the others who were there that fatal day.

The Salton Sea is written by Tony Gayton and directed by D.J. Caruso, who comes to film for the first time after previously being involved only with television.

Danny Parker is the assumed name of Tom Van Allen (Val Kilmer), whose wife (Chandra West) was murdered a year ago in a crystal meth house by the Salton Sea. She was killed by two masked intruders who robbed the place and killed everyone they saw, but Tom was saved because he was in the toilet. As a means of revenge and driven by a sense of guilt that he did nothing to save his loving wife, the jazz trumpet player becomes a speed freak who is heavily tattooed, into wearing heavy chains, dressing up his fingers with silver death’s-head rings, and he also becomes a police snitch. He has rolled over on scores of dealers by giving info to the brutal cops, Morgan (Hutchison) and Garcetti (LaPaglia), who use him without realizing that he’s using them. He suspects they were the two masked goons who killed his wife.

The only thing more annoying than watching the druggie scene, is listening to Danny’s pretentious laid-back voiceover. He runs his mouth off throughout, wondering whether he’s an “avenging angel or Judas Iscariot.” He keeps asking in different ways: “Who am I?” This scenario opens the film as he sits calmly playing the trumpet while his seedy rooming house apartment is engulfed by flames, and he not only asks the above question to himself but asks the viewer “You decide who I am.” Well, Danny boy, I don’t think you really want me in particular to answer that one. This question is also asked by him again at the film’s end, as by that time I not only don’t care who he is but don’t even want to remember him.

Living in squalor in a rooming house by the Salton Sea, Danny meets other characters who have hit bottom for various reasons. The one he becomes best friends with is Jimmy (Sarsgaard), an uneducated junkie who hero worships Danny and would do anything for him. He respects Danny for his education and because Danny never goofs on him because of his lack of education, and in turn he never bugs Danny why he’s down here as a low-life junkie.

Danny’s new neighbor is the frightened blonde beauty, Colette (Deborah Kara Unger), who got into trouble back home and ran away. She’s now indebted to her abusive boyfriend Quincy (Guzman), who won’t let her out of their arrangement and proves that by continually beating her. Danny and Colette get together for friendly talks, as the two have much misery in common to talk over.

Another unappealing character is a maniacal and hallucinating African-American dealer, Bobby Ocean (Glenn Plummer). He is waving a spear gun at his druggie customers Jimmy and Danny, while beating on his white girlfriend who is kept under his mattress.

It’s the same old deal here as in most druggie flicks, you have your cardboard nasty cops and dealers (except for D’Onofrio, he’s a one of a kind). There’s also your anti-hero with an identity problem, Val Kilmer. He’s all costume, and is about as convincing as a pimp telling his honey that he loves her.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”