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Meth Acting: Val Kilmer shows off his tats as a speed-snorting police snitch in 'The Salton Sea.'

Salton of Swat

You'll want revenge for the revenge drama 'The Salton Sea'

By Richard von Busack

D.J. CARUSO'S The Salton Sea may be grotty enough to form the basis of a cult. Point Break was ripe as cheese, but some cinéastes were able (thanks to the triumph of faith over reason) to convince themselves it was meant as a joke. But The Salton Sea's early promise of snazzy trash is broken by heavy narration. The prelude consists of government-quantity levels of anti-drug warnings posing as crypto-beatnik talk. Take the scene where the narrator explains that the bombing of Hiroshima was probably necessary because the Japanese population used a lot of meth--real cute, real repugnant.

In the early scenes, director Caruso tries to evoke the allure of meth through hot colors and quick editing, but this effort fades all too quickly into a typical police story, and our hero leaves those bad drugs alone after the first 20 minutes or so. Val Kilmer plays a man who appears to be tattooed, speed-snorting scum but who is actually a police snitch. Or is he? What of the Memento-style flashbacks to his early life as a trumpeter named Tom Van Allen, who had a beautiful wife? "Oh, that hurts my heart," she sighs when she hears him play a solo.

But that was the past. In the present, using the name Danny Parker, he plots a heist on a big dealer. Meanwhile, he meets danger in the form of a beautiful woman (Deborah Kara Unger in the Veronica Lake part). She's a distressed damsel, being beaten black and blue by her lover (Luis Guzman), which is funny enough: that big blonde could step on a man Guzman's size like you'd crush an earwig.

The Salton Sea tries to be a little bit of everything but ends up as this month's big hunk of nothing--a 3000 Miles to Graceland for a new generation. The script is by Tony Gayton, whose Murder by Numbers is better, though still derivative. Here, Gayton filters other movies through Quentin Tarantino's used typing paper. A speed dealer: "You thought you could fuck with Bobby? You thought you could fuck with Bobby? With Bobby, you thought you could fuck?" With Bobby, you thought you could fuck? What is this, Yoda starring in Reservoir Dogs?

Certainly, inflections of attempted humor are suggested in Vincent D'Onofrio's Texas whine and plastic nose as the bad speed dealer Pooh Bear; his torture scene reprises (poorly) the marmot-to-the-Johnson attack from The Big Lebowski. D'Onofrio is stagnating in these parts, but he does try hard to play the dealer of "gack" (speed-slang I haven't heard before), working to make him repulsive and forgetting to make him charming.

As for the lead, he's another victim of The Salton Sea's faded sick humor (JFK jokes? In 2002?). Kilmer might have been weird enough to hold this mess together, but despite a serious gift for comedy, he always takes himself too seriously. Kilmer is a William Shatner who isn't on to himself yet. The Salton Sea is overproduced, overacted, overwritten, overnarrated and overeverything.

The Salton Sea (R; 103 min.), directed by D. J. Caruso, written by Tony Gayton, photographed by Amir M. Mokri, and starring Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio and Deborah Kara Unger, opens Friday the CinéArts in Palo Alto.

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From the April 25-May 1, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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