The condemned: Scorched Earth (2018)
The plot: Bearing the look and feel of a Syfy cheapie, Scorched Earth is the umpteenth variant on a Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic tale, our planet this time ravaged by climate change disasters in the mid-21st century that killed off most of the population. Those who remain survive on higher ground that didn’t vanish beneath the rising oceans. Our story begins 50 years later. Clean air and water are scarce and precious, and everyone’s most valuable accoutrement is an air mask. The two types of currency are water purifier tablets and powdered silver, the latter being the key ingredient for everyone’s air masks (which is apparently a real thing and to the screenwriters’ credit that they actually googled this, unlike some sci-fi cinema).
Outlaws who still use fossil fuel vehicles are considered the worst criminals (“Unlike today?!”—Al Gore), and bounty hunters roam the lands hunting them down. The film follows one such hunter, hilariously named Atticus Gage, as she decides to go after Thomas Jackson, the most dangerous of all these gas-burning monsters (apparently driving a gaz-guzzling jeep is a gateway crime, leading to theft, rape, murder, etc.). He’s established a stronghold town he runs with impunity (it’s appropriately name Defiance), stringing up the bounty hunters foolish enough to go after him as a warning to others—a warning that doesn’t seem to be working, judging by the number of bodies displayed at the town limits.
Posing as another notorious outlaw named Chavo, Gage makes her way into the town and gains the trust of Jackson, who lets her in on his plan to kidnap people from nearby towns and force them to work in his silver mines, thereby becoming the sole seat of power in the territory. At first, it seems Gage might go for the large payday Jackson offers her secret identity—until she realizes the outlaw was the one who killed her sister as a child, and attempts to bring him in. After her identity is revealed and Jackson’s people leave her for dead, she staggers back to her friend, a nearby doctor, and following a brief recuperation montage, together they plan and execute an assault that destroys Jackson’s operation, takes out all of his men, and finally kills Jackson himself.
Over-the-top box copy: Naught but a sassy tagline—“Bringing men to justice is her only reward.” False. She is literally a bounty hunter. Her reward for bringing men to justice is money (i.e., water tabs and silver). I guess it’s technically true when it comes to wanting to take down Jackson specifically, but even that’s only after she learns he killed her sister. She spent most of the story hoping to be paid, frankly. I don’t blame her. It doesn’t look like a fun job. (It doesn’t look like a fun world, period, but we’ll get to that.)
The descent: The only really noteworthy thing about the origin story of Scorched Earth is that it was originally written for a man in the starring role of Gage, which makes one wonder in what ways the script was tweaked after the gender swap. For example, at one point in her disguise as Chavo, she kills a man in Defiance who recognizes her as Gage. When Jackson suspiciously interrogates her motives, she convinces him all is well by explaining, “He was trying to rape me.” Sadly, I suspect that plot point was altered for all-too-stereotypical reasons. Similarly, there’s a sultry jazz singer named Melena in Defiance, whom we learn Jackson kidnapped and essentially treats as a sex slave. Gage’s interactions with her are very odd, and a clumsily inserted flashback is meant to suggest Gage develops a sympathy for the woman because Melena reminds her of her long-dead sister. I would put even money that a romance was originally meant to develop between Gage and Melena, but got scrubbed for reasons passing understanding. Wait, no, understandable—homophobia, right? Probably homophobia. Just guessing.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Like a lot of action fans, I developed an appreciation for ex-MMA fighter Gina Carano based on her star turn in Steven Soderbergh’s cinematic beatdown-delivery system Haywire. That performance, along with small but enjoyable supporting turns in fun blockbusters like Fast & Furious 6 and Deadpool. That’s about all I’ve seen her in, but it was enough to merit a fair amount of goodwill, such that when the trailer for Scorched Earth popped up in my inbox, I was willing to give it a shot. I mean, how can you turn down the opportunity to see Carano when there’s a chance she’ll deliver a fight scene even one-third as fun as this one:
The other notable name here is John Hannah, who has had a long-running career in genre film and television, from Spartacus to the Mummy franchise to Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Those bigger-budget and brand-name titles are what got him a lot of attention (along with his early supporting turn in Four Weddings And A Funeral)—however, he’s also exactly the kind of actor I’m not terribly surprised to see pop up in Scorched Earth.
The execution: Sadly, there ends up being very little fun had with this lunkheaded premise. The director, Peter Howitt, has a genuinely odd résumé: He made his name writing and directing the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors, his first feature. From there, he helmed the goofy popcorn cyber-thriller Antitrust, and has since been alternating TV work with milquetoast films such as Johnny English, Laws Of Attraction, and Reasonable Doubt. If you scanned those titles and thought, “There’s nothing on here to suggest he knows what to do with a badass action-centric actor,” then you know better than whoever bought this script to him.
Taking a low budget and delivering the visual equivalent of it, Howitt’s anonymous direction provides the kind of “eh, good enough” framing and editing that makes this resemble passable entertainment, without actually delivering much of anything entertaining. There are some perfunctory explosions and decently composed shoot-outs, but nothing above what you’d see on your average DTV actioner. And maybe that’s even more damning than a notably bad product—everything here is so thoroughly, exhaustingly adequate. True, the world is full of C-minus students, but it doesn’t make enduring the results any more fun.
To be fair, a portion of this blame can be laid at the feet of a rather severely bad script. Credited screenwriters Kevin Leeson and Bobby Mort are an awfully mismatched pair; the former has written disposable TV-movie dreck like Mongolian Death Worm and would likely be the guilty party here, whereas Mort was a writer for The Colbert Report who went on to create Audience Network’s current dramedy Loudermilk. Given there is no evidence of a sense of humor (or dramatic pacing) anywhere in this narrative, I’d be curious to know what Mort’s contributions consisted of, because lord knows it wasn’t wit. This is the kind of movie where Gage greets a bad guy with “You’ve been a very bad girl, Chavo,” and no one rolls their eyes. But perhaps most embarrassing is Gage’s plan to infiltrate Jackson’s town by posing as said outlaw, Chavo. She accomplishes this feat by putting on Chavo’s hat. At first, you think the movie is mocking such a stupid idea, because it literally has Gage take the hat off and on, saying, “Gage… Chavo.” But then Jackson is introduced to Gage undercover, and buys the deception because… she’s wearing the hat.
But if they re-wrote the part for Carano, why the hell wouldn’t they think to give her some better action? There’s an early knife fight with the aforementioned Chavo that suggests this is an action film, but then Carano literally doesn’t have another fight scene until the final 10 minutes of the movie. That’s it: one at the start, one at the end. In between, she uses a crossbow to blow up an armored car at one point, but otherwise just skulks around waiting for her moment. What a waste.
Especially because Carano, to put it bluntly, is really bad in this film. She tries to maintain a man-with-no-name stoicism, but balanced with the script’s attempts to make Gage sassy, it just comes across like someone only capable of two expressions—blank-faced and slightly amused. Her line readings are often wooden, and Howitt does her no favors by occasionally lingering on said blank face, to no effect. This exchange with Jackson’s imprisoned singer/sex slave is about as good as Carano’s performance gets, and it is not good.
Hannah fares even worse, though that’s because an American accent is not his strong suit. It actually becomes somewhat comical listening to his voice waver between an awkward Southern drawl and a British one. Listen to him deliver the following harangue, and see if you can count the number of times it slides back and forth from one to the other.
But mostly, this milquetoast project is the victim of death by laziness. Some of it is forgivable: No one expects a micro-budget small-town set to consist of more than four or five buildings and one street, with the absolute bare minimum of extras. Someone gets sprayed in the face with acid, and we never see the results. But the shitty-movie devil is in the details. There is no discernible job or responsibilities evident for anyone other than the four or five characters with dialogue; the rest of humanity in this tale is just background, not an actual realized universe. Or take the scene where Jackson invites Gage over for dinner, and after an extended conversation, the scene ends with him leaning in to her and saying, “I wonder what’s for dessert,” followed by a long, mutually suggestive stare between the two—which then abruptly cuts to the next morning. Nothing happened, it seems. Perhaps they found a box of Oreos?
A hundred other little ill-conceived details like that saturate the film. Hard to pick out or call much attention to, but they slowly accrue until the substandard quality is impossible to ignore. Gage’s hair always looks freshly shampooed and brushed, even right after she’s almost been killed. Hannah’s doctor character (cleverly named “Doc,” according to IMDB) embalms the body of Chavo, despite there being literally no reason narratively or otherwise to do so. We see one shot of an oxygen tank dial early on, yet nobody in the entire film has a mask connected to one. And someone decided the way to inject a little levity into this movie was by having an A-Team-style montage prepping for the final battle, which gets interrupted by Gage standing inside a coffin for a “joke”—it’s ridiculous and childlike, even in context.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Almost nil. Even if Carano eventually finds more vehicles that play to her (quite literally physical) strengths, this will never be anything but an unfortunate blip on her filmography. The only person exuding any kind of watchable charisma here is Ryan Robbins as Jackson, who has a “young Adrian Pasdar” vibe that suggests he deserves to topline one of these DTV endeavors.
Damnable commentary track or special features? Not a one. I made fun of Singularity last month in this column for listing “Closed Captioned” under its “Special Features” heading on the DVD. The Blu-ray of Scorched Earth lacks even that.
Still, it does allow the villain’s second-to-last line to be a clumsy insertion of the title: “You ever hear of a military tactic called ‘scorched earth policy’?” Yes, they get it in just under the wire.