All the elements of a solid hard-boiled crime drama are present in “Scorpion Spring,” except for a coherent story — and a measure of good taste. Debuting feature director Brian Cox shows impressive command over technical aspects but no sense of intelligent storytelling, thus severely jeopardizing the commercial prospects of a well-shot film whose profile is enhanced by some idiosyncratic character actors, such as Alfred Molina and Ruben Blades, and score by noted composer Lalo Schifrin.
The footprints of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and their own mentors, Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, are all over “Scorpion Spring,” a contempo spaghetti Western set along the U.S.-Mexican border, in a region dubbed Cocaine Corridor. Yarn also borrows from Orson Welles'”Touch of Evil,” which took place in a sleazy border town and contained good and bad American and Mexican law officers.
Tale begins rather promisingly with the random meeting of two offbeat characters. Denis Brabant (Molina) is a sleazy French actor, ditched by his mistress in the middle of nowhere when he tells her his wife is pregnant. Almost his opposite, Zac Cross (Patrick McGaw) is a handsome, naive all-American guy, trying to reconcile over the phone with former sweetheart Beth. With Denis needing a ride and Zac out of money for gas, the two pool resources and hit the road in Zac’s old convertible.
At first, the stew concocted by scripter Cox is juicy and engaging, with characters including a handsome-looking couple, a seedy drug dealer Astor (Esai Morales) and a Mexican girl, Nadia (Angel Aviles), who doesn’t speak one word of English. Claiming Nadia is his sister, which she vehemently denies, Astor says they’re trying to cross the border to reunite with their brothers.
Unfortunately, midway through, the director loses grip on his tale and the plot gets progressively silly and convoluted. Indeed, along the way, the quartet encounters a nasty Mexican drug lord (Matthew McConaughey), a bigoted white sheriff (Kevin Tighe) and a decent border patrolman (Blades), each motivated by his own personal agenda. Cox’s strategy is to pile up more bizarre characters and more outlandish incidents as the picture goes along — until it falls apart.
The vicious shootouts are skillfully shot and framed, with mega-close-ups and fast cutting, in the manner of Leone and Rodriguez. But the Tarantino-like climax, which was greeted with sneering laughter at the Hamptons fest, is preposterous. By the time the revelations — intimations of incest, mother fixation, obsessive revenge, corruption and racism — are made, it’s too late, as the audience has long since lost interest.
As the perpetually randy, misogynist Frenchman, Molina brings some needed humor to his part, though he’s overacting and his French accent is unconvincing. McGaw acquits himself with a decent performance, but Richard Edson is totally miscast as a garage mechanic, and the usually reliable Blades hasn’t a role worthy of his talent.
Nancy Schreiber’s extraordinarily sharp lensing captures the distinctive yellow-brown palette of the Southwest. Impressive production values elevate pic above the generic level, but they accentuate its ridiculous narrative foundations. Cox seems to be a potentially gifted helmer, but he desperately needs a reasonable script to put his technical resourcefulness to good effect.