The Salton Sea (2002) Movie Review

I am continually amazed by the decisions Hollywood makes concerning films they put out for Joe Q. to see and the kind they decide to send to the obscure grave that is Direct-To-Video. “The Salton Sea”, much like the Wesley Snipes prison movie “Undisputed”, were both made with big stars and a hefty price tag, and yet both films are all but forgotten. (That is, if you knew they existed in the first place.) There have been no publicity for “The Salton Sea” and although “Undisputed” did appear in theaters for a limited time, it mind as well not have for all the (lack of) push its distributors gave it.

“The Salton Sea” stars Val Kilmer (“Batman Forever”) as Danny Parker, a speed freak and all around junkie (or tweaker, as they’re called) who is not who he appears to be. In a former life Danny was Tom Van Allen, a mild-mannered trumpet player. Tom was married to the beautiful Nancy (supermodel Shalom Harlow) and had a good life before a bloody raid on a drug house kills Nancy. Now in his second career as a tweaker, Danny is a rat for two sadistic cops and is about to get way over his head with a noseless redneck hood name Pooh-Bear (Vincent D’Onofrio). What the heck is going on, and what is this secret master plan Danny is playing?

Val Kilmer has found the perfect role: the strung out junkie who talks in a slow, drug-induced drawl. No offense to Kilmer, but he seems tailor made for this role, and oh my does he convince me that he actually knows how to act after all. Kilmer’s Danny is covered in tattoos and his life is one nightly drugfest after another. Still, Danny forces himself to become Tom each night in order to remember his previous life. You see, Danny failed to save Nancy’s life, and he is eternally haunted by what he considers his lack of courage that fateful night. Kilmer is good throughout the film, and I am thoroughly impressed with his performance.

Movies like “The Salton Sea” are sometimes hard to take. The film is not very cheerful, which seems appropriate considering the subject matter. The opening sequence, with a disheveled and bleeding Danny on his apartment floor playing trumpet as fire engulfs the room, sets the mood for the rest of the film.

The most interesting part of “The Salton Sea” is not even Danny’s elaborate plan for revenge on the men who killed Nancy, but Danny’s immersion in the tweaker lifestyle. The film picks up and becomes personal and likeable whenever Danny is around the other tweakers, including Peter Sarsgaard as Jimmy the Finn, Danny’s only real friend; Adam Goldberg is Kujo, a tweaker with a master plan, but not the sense to carry them out. The tweakers are loveable, if a little kooky.

The film slips back into darkness when Danny is outside the tweaker life, dealing with the clearly insane Pooh-Bear and abusive cops Anthony LaPaglia and Doug Hutchison. The movie has a twist in its Third Act that is quite good, although another twist toward the end involving Colette, Danny’s neighbor, seems a little forced. The filmmakers might have done better to end the movie after the climax at Pooh-Bear’s ranch instead.

“The Salton Sea” is a good film that works. The screenplay is insightful about the tweaker lifestyle, providing a wealth of information (I’m guessing, of course, since I am not a practicing member of the Tweaker Nation); Tony Gayton’s screenplay also informs us that speed and meth began with the Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War II! Now that’s infotainment. The direction by D.J. Caruso is stellar, and the film moves briskly with a flurry of style.

As of this writing, “The Salton Sea” has never made an appearance in theaters (at least to my knowledge). This is a little disheartening, especially in light of the recent release of “Scooby Doo” and other similar, inferior trash.

D.J. Caruso (director) / Tony Gayton (screenplay)
CAST: Val Kilmer….Danny Parker
Vincent D’Onofrio….Pooh-Bear
Adam Goldberg….Kujo
Luis Guzman …. Quincy
Doug Hutchison …. Gus Morgan
Anthony LaPaglia …. Al Garcetti

Buy The Salton Sea on DVD