Before Conor’s second film, I pulled out a somewhat long short – the first Robot Chicken Star Wars episode.
It’s basically 20 minutes of puppets reenacting scenes from or inspired by the Star Wars trilogies, and putting a humorous spin on things. Imagine Darth Vader explaining Midichlorians and how Ewoks will defeat the Empire to Luke in the Cloud City air shaft. Imagine if the alien who loses his arm in the cantina was really just trying to be a nice guy. Imagine Luke and the Emperor in a “Yo’ Mama” fight. And so on. Goofy, but not high art.
Conor’s feature presentation was a a 2002 flick by D.J. Caruso that flew far enough under the radar that I hadn’t even heard of it – The Salton Sea. I have to admit I enjoyed the movie, even though I thought it made mistake upon mistake, and I don’t really know how to feel about that.
The first mistake the movie makes is that it starts at the end. This is useful if you want to know when it’s safe to leave the theater if you’re really in a hurry, but usually this just means “now we’ve got to contrive a way to get our character into a burning building playing a trumpet and preparing to die”. And it immediately launches into its second mistake, having an overly wordy and introspective narrator wax existential about whether he’s really “Danny Parker” or he’s really “Tom Van Allen” and whether we’re all going to figure it out if we watch the movie. Oh, and he of course throws in a third mistake, telling us that nothing is as it seems, which basically announces “plot twist coming” and asks you to keep an eye out for it.
How can a movie succeed like that?
I’m not really sure, but The Salton Sea makes a pretty good effort.
Val Kilmer decides to start his story as meth-addled Danny Parker, the druggie with the heart of gold who attends three-day raves and gives us a long voice-over on the history of the substance while we watch him and his friends tweaking. Of course, they run out and need to go buy some more, so his best buddy Jimmy the Finn hooks them up with a dealer. This dealer is not exactly the most sympathetic character, as he’s deep in a meth rage, heavily armed, and has a woman under his mattress. But in the end, the dealer doesn’t kill them, and out of gratitude, Danny rats him out to the cops.
Yes, Danny is a stoolie, a narc, an informant. His info results in the mattress man getting killed in a shootout with the cops, but Danny doesn’t seem to mind. He just goes home, changes into some nice clothes, and plays the trumpet. Because, of course, he’s also Tom Van Allen, jazz trumpter. At least, that’s who he started out as, and he begins to fill in some of his backstory.
Tom was married once, before he made the error of taking his precious wife to the Salton Sea, destination of lovers everywhere. The problem wasn’t so much the inland irrigation error as getting lost in a sketchy area. They ask for directions and to use the bathroom in the wrong meth trailer, which gets shot up in a robbery. Tom is the only survivor, because he was in the head, and he watches his wife killed execution-style.
Well, I guess that might make you into a meth addict informant. I guess.
But back to the present. Tom has a new, hot neighbor who is being abused by her boyfriend. He convinces her that she can get rid of him by planting some meth on him, and then he’ll report him. Brilliant plan! But in the meantime, Danny has a bit of a problem. His cop friends tell him that some dealer or other has found out Danny is an informant. So they’re setting him loose. Of course, Danny has no money, so he apparently hatches one last plan to hit a nasty, no-nosed dealer named Pooh-Bear to get some cash.
Of course, his cop handlers find out about this and now that he’s caught, force Danny to help them take Pooh-Bear down. And about now is the time for the big reveal – that Danny is really working for the FBI, after having tracked down his wife’s killer and learning that he was…one of the cop handlers. A dirty cop, and Danny/Tom is taking him down.
But the whole revenge plan isn’t going quite to plan, so Danny gets his buddy Jimmy the Finn to help him out. They do a sneaky car handoff, which allows Danny to ditch the FBI (who is going to take down the dirty cops) and make his own way to the scheduled deal at Pooh-Bears. Then, through a series of events through which Danny emerges alive against all odds, he ends up the last man standing, notably informing his wife’s killer exactly why he’s about to die before offing him.
I love it when a plan comes together. Even when it’s a really unlikely plan that involves getting hooked on meth and becoming an informant under the guy who killed your wife while simultaneously working for the FBI and outsmarting all of them to kill about ten heavily armed people single-handedly.
Of course, we still haven’t got to the fire. In brief, Danny/Tom comes home to find the hot neighbor’s “boyfriend” there. See, she set him up – the guy who was looking for the informant seems to have found him. Danny gets gutshot and his building is set on fire. Naturally, he decides to play trumpet until he passes out, at which point we get a Finn ex machina and he’s dragged out of the building and taken to the hospital.
Danny/Tom/Whatever He’s Going To Call Himself Now survives, throws his trumpet into the Salton Sea (closure, get it?) and moves on in life, having accomplished his complicated revenge.
Again, replaying this movie in my head, it makes so many mistakes and has such an unlikely plot that it ought to be terrible, but it works. I don’t get it. All in all it was a pretty good film. Go figure.