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(2002) (Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio) (R)

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Drama: A man loses track of his identity after going undercover and creating a new persona to track down those responsible for his wife's death.
A man (VAL KILMER) sits in a burning room playing a trumpet, seemingly unaware of or completely at ease with the danger he's in. He may be Danny Parker or Tom Van Allen, but he isn't sure, and so he invites us to decide while taking us on a trip leading up to this point.

We first see Danny as a "tweaker," one of many men including Jimmy The Finn (PETER SARSGAARD) and Kujo (ADAM GOLDBERG) who are users and addicts of crystal methamphetamine. Yet, things aren't what they initially seem. It turns out that Danny is an informant to L.A. narcotics agents Morgan (DOUG HUTCHISON) and Garcetti (ANTHONY LaPAGLIA), who use his tips to bust drug rings. They're currently interested in his dealings with Bubba (B. D. WONG), an Asian man dressed somewhat like a cowboy.

With the help of Jimmy, Danny then arranges to meet Pooh-Bear (VINCENT D'ONOFRIO), a notorious and deranged dealer who did so much "gack" that his real nose had to be cut off. As his henchman, Big Bill (JOSH TODD) and Little Bill (DANNY TREJO), keep an eye on him, Danny arranges a large drug buy for Bubba through Pooh-Bear.

As all of this occurs, Danny must deal with a mysterious car that keeps following him, knowledge that his neighbor, Colette (DEBORAH KARA UNGER), is being abused by her violent and ill-tempered boyfriend, Quincy (LUIS GUZMAN), as well as conflicting memories of his past life as Tom Van Allen, a trumpeter with a beautiful wife, Liz (CHANDRA WEST).

As things continue to play out, we repeatedly learn that things aren't what they initially seem and then watch as Danny attempts to complete an elaborate plan of revenge against those he believes have wronged him.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Due to scripts and story ideas being pitched to many people and studios, those same people or entities racing to capitalize on some noteworthy real event and/or simply plain old happenstance, it's not unusual for films of a similar nature or storyline to be released within a year or so of each other. In such regards, sometimes it's best to be first out of the gate with such a release, while at others it works out better not to.

Regardless of whether it's right or wrong, in the case of 2001's "Memento" and this week's release of "The Salton Sea," the latter film loses some points for being second to the start line. Both pictures contain mysterious and troubled protagonists who don't exactly remember who they are, storylines involving self-detective work and revenge for a wife's murder, and a general host of other similarities involving heavily tattooed protagonists, questionable cops and a purposefully nebulous state designed to keep the viewer guessing about what's really happening and/or did occur in the past.

The films have their obvious differences, but the fact that "Memento" was so unique and one of the best and more memorable pictures of 2001 ends up stealing some of this film's thunder. Then there's the overall Quentin Tarantino/Guy Ritchie/David Lynch/Darren Aronofsky visual style and aura that this film constantly imitates and/or tries to re-create on screen.

At this point, you may be thinking that there isn't an original bone in this film's body, and in some ways that's partially true. Yet, there's also a sense of something unique here, as well as the occasional budding of cinematic brilliance that makes one overlook some of the problems and/or deficiencies on display. All of which makes "The Salton Sea" a frustrating if mesmerizing and disturbing experience.

Working from an original screenplay by screenwriter Tony Gayton ("Murder By Numbers"), director D. J. Caruso (making his feature film debut after helming various TV shows) has fashioned a wildly uneven but compelling picture that slowly unfolds while letting the viewer in on its secrets.

None of that will come as a surprise, however, since the opening scene pretty much lays that on the line as the protagonist - who calmly if morosely plays the trumpet while sitting in a burning room surrounded by money -- introduces himself and his story via voice over narration.

Intermittent and feeling like something of an unintentional cross between Martin Sheen's narration in "Apocalypse Now" and most any old film noir flick, this film's use of that storytelling technique will likely entrance some viewers while unintentionally provoking some eye rolling and/or giggling in others due to its somewhat pretentious nature.

After that, the plot then backtracks to show the events that eventually led up to that opening moment. During so, it includes straightforward drama, flashbacks to even earlier events, and odd little inclusions of humorous and/or bizarre narrative asides.

The result is a film dogged by its own peculiarity. At times, it's terrific and completely mesmerizing. At others, however, it goes off on such weird tangents - such as an imagined scene involving some "tweakers" trying to steal Bob Hope's stool specimen to sell for profit - that the momentum is wiped out and the viewer is unnecessarily and unfortunately distracted.

There's no denying that the film is visually stimulating and compelling, what with Caruso and cinematographer Amir Mokri ("Coyote Ugly," "Pacific Heights") borrowing from or emulating the shooting and visual storytelling styles found in films from the likes of Tarantino, Ritchie, Lynch, and Aronofsky. While some of those elements feel incongruous with the rest of the material and/or as if they're present simply to show off, they certainly prevent the film from ever being boring.

The same holds true for Gayton's script that's thankfully far better than the recycled one in "Murder By Numbers," even if some of the moments and revelations occasionally feel a bit far-fetched. Although the plotline doesn't strive for the non-linear fun found in some of Tarantino's work, and the mystery of it isn't, well, that mysterious, it does manage to keep the viewer engaged as things unfold.

What makes the film work rather well - despite some of its problems - are the performances, particularly from Val Kilmer ("Red Planet," "At First Sight") as the troubled protagonist and Vincent D'Onofrio ("Impostor," "The Cell") who plays a seriously deranged and nose-less drug dealer.

While perhaps not as convincing or intriguing as Guy Pearce playing a similar sort of character in "Memento," Kilmer is rather good embodying the one here, creating a generally sympathetic character out of one who initially doesn't appear he'll be that way.

The scene stealer, however, is D'Onofrio, the chameleon-like actor whose magnetic performances always seem to be the best or at least the most interesting of films in which he appears. Here, his Pooh-Bear character is grotesquely funny, disturbing and nothing short of mesmerizing to behold.

Supporting performances from the likes of Doug Hutchison ("I Am Sam," "The Green Mile"), Anthony LaPaglia ("Lantana," "The House of Mirth"), Peter Sarsgaard ("Boys Don't Cry," "Another Day in Paradise") and Deborah Kara Unger ("The Hurricane," "Sunshine") are rather good across the board. That's despite many of their characters not being fleshed out enough to make them as effective and interesting as they might have otherwise been.

That's just one of the frustrating elements found in the film. Whether some scenes were left on the cutting room floor or the filmmakers couldn't quite get a handle on all of the material and characters, the result is an uneven but occasionally brilliant effort that's likely to split viewers into distinct groups. Some will love it, some will hate it, and others - including yours truly - will wish that it could have jelled into more of a cohesive whole than it ultimately does.

Certainly not a film for everyone, the film's good points outweigh and outnumber the bad ones, but the picture can't shake the feeling that it either needed to show more restraint or, conversely, go more headfirst and full-force into the utter bizarreness found in David Lynch's films. As it stands, the uneven and frustrating "The Salton Sea" deserves a look, but rates no higher than a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed April 18, 2002 / Posted May 17, 2002

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