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A review of "Scorcher" (2002)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

This probably comes as a surprise to nobody, but Scorcher is not a very good movie.  Save for a few entertainingly bad moments in the last half hour, there is not much worth watching here.

My Rating: 1.5 / 5

The Plot Summary

Ryan Beckett (Mark Dacascos) is a Mega Soldier in the military.  I honestly don't remember which branch he serves in or which of the elite units he is, so I'm just going to call him "Special Ops" from hereon out.  Doesn't really matter.

Anyway, Beckett has been ordered to go find Julie McGrath (Tamara Davies), a scientist of nebulous specialty (possibly seismology?), and bring her to a top secret military installation to meet with the President (Rutger Hauer).  McGrath is currently studying an active volcano that's about to go off, so when Beckett finds her, they have a meet cute that segues into a lame action scene as they escape from mounting ash.

Then they get to the President and the movie is almost ready to start.

It seems that there is a tectonic plate sliding out of place due to carbon emissions (yeah, I don't know how that works either).  McGrath has been commissioned by her estranged, arrogant father, Dr. Sallin (John Rhys-Davies), to be part of a specialized research team to figure out what this may mean for the world.  Using even more nebulous science, they measure the shift of the plate and deduce that it will hit a "crisis mark" in about 44 hours.  Once it hits that mark, the world will heat up at an exponential rate and humanity is doomed. Together, McGrath and Sallin conclude that the only way to stop the shift is if they detonate an atom bomb in downtown Los Angeles.

Huh.  Okay.  I don't buy any of it, but whatever - I'm willing to go along with it for the sake of a movie.  Speaking of movies, Scorcher is about to start now.  About time.  It's been 20 minutes already.

The President appoints Beckett as the lead for an elite team of miscellaneous special ops figures who are ordered to go to Los Angeles and detonate the bomb.  Beckett decides to bring a second bomb as backup - you never know, you might lose one - and starts to assemble his crew while the President orders an immediate evacuation of LA.  (The evacuation is glossed over pretty quickly; apparently it's totally easy to get an entire city to clear out within the space of 24 hours, because when the movie cuts to the day after, the city's a ghost town.)

Beckett asks his commanding officer, General Moore (G.W. Bailey), to ensure that Beckett's daughter, Faith, is evacuated from Los Angeles safely.  Moore agrees, but also assigns Special Agent Kellaway (Mark Rolston) to join Beckett's team.  Beckett and Kellaway immediately get off on the wrong foot and hate each other, but for the sake of the world, agree to work together.

As the soldiers fly to LA, Faith is escorted by some police out of the city.  But before they can get away, they are caught up in a sudden explosion in a tunnel.  Faith survives by hiding in the trunk of a car (still not buying it, movie) and wakes up alone and abandoned.  Moore hears the news of the explosion, but lies to Beckett and tells him that Faith has been safely taken out of the city.

The soldiers arrive in LA and carry out the next phase of their plan: they are going to drive the nuke through the city on a truck and set it up at the specified site.  Unfortunately, not long after they start driving, they are ambushed by a rebellious assailant who doesn't want to leave the city.  The assailant opens fire and kills one of the soldiers before being wiped out himself.

Meanwhile, Faith is trying to escape the city on foot, but she is attacked and kidnapped by a religious psychopath who wants to set her on fire as part of a cleansing ritual.  The psychopath locks her up in a cell phone store and keeps her handcuffed until he's ready to start the ritual properly.

Cut back to Beckett.  His squad experiences a few more mishaps thanks to some earthquakes, but they get to the explosion site and set up one of their nukes.  Then McGrath makes a shocking discovery: her calculations are not quite right.  In order to stop the plate from shifting, they'll have to set off two nukes, about ten miles apart.  (Lucky thing they have a spare.)

Unfortunately, her dad disagrees.  Dr. Sallin refuses to accept her new calculations and tells everybody to proceed as planned.  Right around that moment, Faith manages to steal a phone from one of the dozens of boxes of phones around her and uses it to text her dad that she's in trouble.  Beckett tells everybody he's going to go "run an errand," and this scares Kellaway, so they draw guns on each other and bro out for a bit.  The other soldiers confine Kellaway and keep him guarded.

Eventually Beckett starts leaving and McGrath meets up with him separately, carrying the second nuke in a duffel bag.  (I wish I was kidding.)  She urges him to take her with him so they can set up the second weapon and finish the job. Otherwise they're all screwed.  Beckett refuses, but then Dr. Sallin shows up out of nowhere and explains that he rechecked his math, and McGrath was right.  They do need the second nuke, and he apologizes for being a shitty dad and a shitty scientist.  McGrath and Sallin have a teary moment of connection, and then they part ways.

Meanwhile, Kellaway breaks free of his binds and kills the other soldiers, then calls General Moore to report that the other nuke was taken.  General Moore instructs him to recover it "at any cost."  Dr. Sallin returns to the site of the first nuke, sees that Kellaway has killed the others, and draws a gun on him.  He explains that they need to call General Moore and the President right now to explain that the second nuke needs to be used, but instead of doing exactly that, Kellaway kills Sallin and chases after Beckett and McGrath.

Beckett finds Faith, shoots the psychopath a bunch of times, and then takes Faith with him to set up the second nuke.  Before they can finish the job, Kellaway shows up and fights with him.  Once again, Kellaway refuses to call his boss, so Beckett has no choice but to bludgeon him on the head.  His weapon of choice?  The nuke, naturally.

(This is one of the few moments in the movie that genuinely made me happy.  I've never before seen a man pick up a nuclear weapon and smack another man in the head with it.)

With Kellaway dispatched, Beckett, McGrath, and Faith escape from LA and set off the nukes.  The plate shift is stopped, and the movie ends.

The Part Where I Complain

Man, this movie is stupid.  Even leaving the non-science out of it (and boy, is there ever some garbage here), it's dumb.  

And yet, it still manages to get over-complicated.  It's so clouded with subplots and inter-character conflict that it just doesn't need.  And even so, despite all the sturm und drang, it's incredibly boring.  There is zero tension throughout.

For example, it forces a lame conflict between McGrath and Dr. Sallin over their estrangement.  Why?  Who gives a shit about your daddy issues when the world is about to end?  Okay, fine, maybe you want to inject a bit of human drama into your story - I can accept that, I guess, but I need you to spend some time making it a quality conflict.  I'm not going to get absorbed in it just because you threw a few cliches at me.

That's all it is for the first half, really.  Just one stupid cliche after another until it just starts to get stupid as all hell.

For one thing, why is their plan to drive into the city by truck?  Why not load the nuke onto a helicopter and fly it directly to the site?  Don't tell me it's because the nuke is too sensitive or something - you have your main character slinging it over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes at the end.  (And let's not forget that he uses it to bash in another guy's head.)  Flying the nuke directly would save time and effort, plus you avoid the risk of getting stuck on streets littered by abandoned cars.

And you can't even say it's because there's no room to land the helicopter, because the movie ridiculously shows a pilot landing a jet on an inner city LA street at the end.  If you've got room to land a jet, you can land your fucking helicopter.

Speaking of planes - why are there still any at LAX when we see it?  Why would anybody leave their jets behind?  You think any big movie companies are going to abandon their fleet of $45,000,000 Gulfstreams?  Especially if they're already evacuating?

And why doesn't General Moore get any comeuppance at the end?  The dude lied to Beckett about his daughter and indirectly screwed up his mission - shouldn't he get fired or at least punched in the face or something?  Where's the scene where they pull him aside and do a Die Hard?

When it's not being stupid, it's just being really flat and uninteresting to watch.  Scorcher is a movie that looks like I directed it.  What I mean by that isn't that it looks amateurish - just that it looks like somebody was in a hurry to make it and didn't think to stage anything in an interesting way.  It just looks rushed and sloppy.  Like all my old crappy movies.

A lot of times, I will complain about a movie and then say "but it was at least shot well," and I can't even do that today.  Look at this:

This is from a scene where John Ryhs-Davies is actually part of the conversation.  (Oh, didn't you see him?  He's the weird shape in the background.  To the right.)  Why would you compose your shot like that?

Scorcher's greatest flaw, though, is that it just doesn't know what it wants the central conflict to be, so it never invests enough energy or resources into making any of them particularly terrifying.  It goes through three separate premises in the span of 90 minutes.

At first it's set up like a natural disaster movie - LA is being ripped apart and the special ops squad has to deal with earthquakes and other devastation.  This could be interesting if they bothered with a budget for effects, or if they could at least bring some kind of visual flair to the disaster scenes.  But as I mentioned before, there's nothing interesting about how this is shot, so every disaster is as flat and boring as a board room meeting.

Scorcher is the type of movie that makes me long for something like Armageddon.  I know I complain about Michael Bay all the time, but the dude knows how to make things interesting to watch.  Armageddon is a terrible movie that's incredibly watchable specifically because he can make the camera work, and that's worth a lot.

But it's like the filmmakers realized their disaster footage was terrible, because they shift gears around forty minutes in to focus on the second threat: the people who stayed behind in LA.

This is actually a pretty interesting concept.  Los Angeles is a huge city of about 4,000,000 people or so.  Surely not all of them would leave even if they were told in advance that the city was about to be nuked.  Some might stay behind because they have no ability to evacuate, some might stay behind to loot as much as they can before they run away, and some might stay simply because they're crazy.  Still others might see it as a possible power play, and they might decide to stay behind and "take over."  All of these ideas are hinted at in Scorcher, and it comes to a head when an unknown gunman starts firing on Beckett's squad and kills one of his guys.

If the movie actually bothered to follow through with this conceit, then there might be something to say for the movie.  It's still not shot well and there's still not a lot of tension, but I'd be down with a Heart of Darkness trip into inner city LA while a special ops squad fights through waves of LA gangs that want to claim their city.  Doesn't that at least sound like a good movie?

Well, too bad.  The gunman (there's just one of him) is killed and the movie abandons that idea.  It's actually the shortest of the three threats, which is telling - the one good idea the movie had was immediately discarded.

So who fills in the vacuum at this point?  We're not good at shooting disaster scenes and we don't want to explore something genuinely fascinating, so who can be our villain?

Oh.  That guy.


The Worst (As In Lowest Quality) Villain Ever

Sigh.  Special Agent Kellaway sucks.  He's just a terrible character.

In a way, he's actually an effective instrument in the film because you do want him to be killed, so you end up cheering for Beckett during their final fight.  But it's not because you're invested in the fate of the world or because Kellaway is a particularly loathsome guy - it's just because he's so fucking stupid.

So, here's the thing.  Kellaway's motivation is to recover the second nuke because General Moore told him to do so "at any cost."  The movie wants us to believe that he's such a devoted soldier that he's willing to blindly follow any command, no matter how ridiculous, until the very bitter end.

But that's stupid, because that's not the type of person who gets promoted to Elite Super Special Ops Commander Mega Soldier.  The military may be built on a chain of command, but it's also built on not being a fucking moron.

No offense to anybody in the military - I don't mean to make light of what you do - but if you're the type of person who just blindly follows your order strictly to the letter (no more, no less) and never once takes initiative, considers new information, or thinks about consequences, then you will either die or, best case scenario, just stay at your current rank forever.

Let's put it another way.  Pretend it's 2002 and Private Dingus and Private Macho have been assigned to dig a ditch in the middle of Afghanistan. While digging, they notice that Osama Bin Laden is going for a stroll nearby.  Private Dingus shrugs and says, "The boss said we gotta dig a hole," then goes for his shovel and keeps digging.  Meanwhile, Private Macho picks up his rifle and shoots Bin Laden in the head.  Scorcher takes place in a universe where Private Macho would be dishonorably discharged, and Private Dingus would get promoted to Major.

But it's even worse than that, because even if you assume that strict and literal adherence to orders at the exclusion of all else is the only thing that matters, then Kellaway is still violating a direct order.  The President is his Commander in Chief no matter what General Moore says.  So if the President told him, "Stop the plate from shifting" then Kellaway can ignore anything Moore tells him that contradicts it.

The worst part of it is when Kellaway kills Dr. Sallin.  There's literally no reason to do it except to be a goddamn idiot.  Your scientist - the guy who's recommendations form the entire basis of your mission - has just told you that you need to set off the second nuke.  Why would you kill him?  Why would you cover that up?  Why wouldn't you call that in to the President?  Are unable to take a shit unless your CO tells you exactly how to squat, how much to strain, and when to wipe?  How are you still alive?

I just hate this character so much.  Why couldn't the movie have been about some other lunatic?  Why did it have to be about Corporal Dumbshit, the Worst Soldier In History?  Jesus, my blood pressure is rising just thinking about this.  I need to go lie down.

Where You Can Watch

Scorcher is currently streaming on Netflix.

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