Equal parts 1960s-style Spaghetti Western pastiche and ’80s-style “Mad Max” knockoff, “Scorched Earth” is the sort of divertingly hokey post-apocalyptic B-movie that would have amused undiscriminating Blockbuster Video renters a generation ago, and now might pass muster as the pilot for a weekly SyFy series.
Former MMA pugilist Gina Carano, who earned her spurs as an action hero in Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire,” is well cast as a formidable femme variation on Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name bounty hunter. And the film itself strikes so many echoes of “A Fistful of Dollars,” it conceivably could inspire a new drinking game among genre aficionados: Each time you view an image, or hear a line, reminiscent of the Sergio Leone classic, it’s time to down a shot of whiskey. Yee-haw.
Directed by Peter Howitt (whose debut feature, “Sliding Doors” (1998), remains an unfulfilled promise) and scripted by Bobby Mort and Kevin Leeson, “Scorched Earth” is set somewhere near the midpoint of the 21st century, after ecological upheavals have wiped out huge swathes of the world’s population, and left survivors chronically dependent on masks filtered with powdered silver to breathe the polluted air.
Anyone still driving fossil fuel-burning vehicles is considered an outlaw, wanted dead or alive. Attica Gage (Carano) makes her living bringing varmints to justice, one way or the other. But when she sets her sights on Jackson (Ryan Robbins), a smug Wild West-style town boss who wants to employ slave labor in a silver mine, she’s motivated less by bounty collecting than score settling.
Carano rides tall, figuratively as well as literally, and shoots straight in a retro-futuristic world where heroes travel on horseback, wagon trains are equipped with machine-gun turrets, and smooth-talking bad guys cheat at poker in saloons that employ sad-eyed songbirds as performers and fringe benefits. John Hannah provides moral support and, when necessary, life-supporting assistance as Doc, Gage’s mentor and occasional sidekick. His spiritedly sarcastic give-and-take with Carano suggests that, if this VOD-ready B-movie really did spawn a SyFy series, the show might be worth sporadic binge viewing, to savor their bickering as father figure and problem child.
“Am I dead?” she asks after being stuffed into a coffin and tossed off a cliff. “Not anymore,” he replies after nursing her back to health. So, of course, she continues her ride down the vengeance trail. Because, hey, a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do.