"Nothing is what it seems," says the hero of "The Salton Sea" in the first scene.
He's all too right. D.J. Caruso's thriller is the latest spawn of "The Usual Suspects," which made a bundle by multiplying red herrings and false expectations to infinity.
"Suspects" was clever entertainment, but its secret weapon was surprise and that's hard to repeat in a third-generation wannabe.
You know right away that something is fishy in "The Salton Sea," since Val Kilmer's screen presence is too self-possessed for the drug-dazed party animal his character is supposed to be.
Sure enough, he turns out to be a police informant, a soulful jazz trumpeter, and a grieving widower still bruised by his wife's violent death. With so many admirable qualities, no wonder he can endure long episodes of menace and mayhem without mussing his fashionably coifed hair.
I won't give away the movie's many plot twists, partly because it would take the rest of this page, and partly because Tony Gayton's screenplay is sometimes as hard to fathom as the salt-smothered California lake it's named after.
But the more the picture reveals, the less interesting it gets, transforming its hero from an intriguing mystery man into a standard-issue screen vigilante and steadily upping the violence, complete with harrowing torture scenes, in a lame effort to keep our juices flowing.
If you want a bracing spring dip, try a sea less muddy than this gimmick-filled Hollywood bog.
Rated R; contains sex, foul language, and much explicit violence.