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SCORCHED EARTH (2018) review

February 1, 2018

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written by: Kevin Leeson and Bobby Mort
produced by: Kevin Leeson and Kevin Leslie
directed by: Peter Howitt
rating: R (for violence and some language)
runtime: 96 min.
U.S. release date: February 2, 2018 (limited & VOD)

 

The only positive I got from watching the post-apocalyptic snoozer “Scorched Earth” is an understanding of the definition of the movie’s title. It’s not just a cheesy movie title that sounds like the name of an album from a 80’s big-hair band, it’s a term used to describe a military strategy in which an opponent destroys the terrain and/or resources of an enemy in order to cut them off and gain the upper hand. It’s a military tactic that’s been around forever, employed by the likes of Napoleon, Kit Carson and Stalin (to name a few) and its definition is mansplained during the third act of this movie. As much as I have respect for anyone who sets out to make a movie and all involved in doing so, I felt like taking such an approach to this movie immediately after it was over. 

The title also describes the setting of this dystopian western debacle. In the world of “Scorched Earth”, sometime in the near-future, after we’ve destroyed our environment, those still alive are left with water toxic and the lethal air to breathe. The ecological disaster is called “Cloudfall” and people have found a way to get by using water capsules and powdered silver that’s used in breathing masks. Since those devices are a commodity, everyone is cautious towards others and whichever way of life they’ve managed to maintain. Although the environment can kill you, mankind is still deadlier and the rudimentary structures that have been established as a functioning element of society remains precarious at best.

In such an environment, business has become quite lucrative for bounty hunters, who track and execute fossil fuel-using “belchers” in return for essentials to service. One such bounty hunter is Attica Gage (Gina Carano), who has returned to New Montana to hand over for her latest victim and in doing so learns that there are greater targets nearby that would likely supply her with a more comfortable life.

 

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Just as “Scorched Earth” has a generic protagonist in Carano’s Gage, there’s also  an equally generic antagonist in the ruthless despot, Thomas Jackson (Ryan Robbins), who happens to be a big fan of the ‘scorched earth’ method himself. He and his right hand man, Lear (Dean S. Jagger), run a town that looks worse than a propped-up set on a mediocre CW western series from the 90s that was cancelled after six episodes. When Gage discovers Jackson is tied to a haunting tragedy from her past, she becomes determined to infiltrate his gang using the criminal identity of Chavo (one of her marks) to permanently take him out. With the reluctant aid of her friend and former mentor, Doc (John Hannah), Gage winds up putting her formidable skills to use dispensing scumbags in name of her own personal vendetta.

The screenplay co-written by Kevin Leeson and Bobby Mort isn’t too concerned with exploring the minutiae of the world that director Peter Howitt has built. The problem is this is a B-movie that has more ambition than it does budget. It wants to rely on atmosphere and action sequences, but when all of that is subpar and barely holds a viewer’s attention, the outcome is woefully underwhelming. What would’ve been more interesting in such a set-up would be to explore the moral struggles and implications of survival in this world, but Howitt – who’s mining new territory having previously directed the likes of “Johnny English” and “Sliding Doors” – is over-reaching his grasp in his desire to bring a compelling and/or exciting actioner and winds up overwhelmed.

The biggest problem “Scorched Earth” has is its cast and how the characters are written here. A movie can have a by-the-numbers storyline or even a narrative that lulls an audience into boredom (as this one does), but sometimes actors or the roles they portray can elevate the material, or at least make up for what we’re enduring. That doesn’t happen here.

 

 

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It could be that Carano really isn’t given many opportunities to show her action mettle, which is after all the reason the former MMA fighter even gets roles in movies. There are attempts to stretch her acting chops, like when she tries to befriends a local saloon singer (Stephanie Bennett, in the only other female role) who’s abused by Robbins’ Jackson, but due to Carano’s limited range, everything between these two characters falls flat or is just awkward. So then you’d expect “Scorched Earth” to pick up during the action scenes, but the movie never favors Carano’s assets.

Granted this is the first movie I’ve seen the former MMA fighter as a lead, but it becomes clear that her acting ability is limited and that she’s better off as part of an ensemble in movies like “Fast & Furious 6” and “Deadpool” where the requirements are all action and attitude.

Watching “Scorched Earth” left me wanting to rewatch Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire“, from seven years ago, which serves as proof that Carano is capable of showing her talent (action and attitude) when she has a director who is playing to her strengths and she’s surrounded by the likes of Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas. In the future, Carano could certainly benefit from a director who’s prepared to give her some great action sequences in a movie buffered by better actors.

Sure, a movie can often be limited by its budget, but a better screenplay and a more capable director would be able to turn “Scorched Earth” into something much more watchable. Of course, it would certainly help if the lead was someone other than Carano. I’ve liked her in supporting roles just fine, but she’s just not cutting it here. This is a movie where even her strengths as a fighter aren’t fully utilized and that right there is a total loss. “Scorched Earth” simply winds up a test in endurance that I seemed to have aced.

 

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RATING: *

 

 

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