Scarred City

Director: Ken Sanzel
Stephen Baldwin, Tia Carrere, Renee Estevez

One day years ago when I was a teenager, I went to see a movie at the local two-plex cinema. When I was in the lobby, a poster for a Richard Gere movie caught my eye. What really got my attention was the tagline on the poster, which read in part, "More seductive than sex.  More addictive than any drug. More precious than gold. And one man can get it for you. For a price." No, the poster wasn't talking about Richard Gere. It was talking about what also happened to be the title of the movie - Power. To date I have still not seen the movie, but that tagline has stuck with me right up to this present day. Who doesn't relish the idea of being in a serious position of power? It comes as no surprise that many people look at the various available avenues out there that might land them in a position of power. Certainly, a lot of these positions are illegal and threaten to eventually put the person behind bars, so that thankfully turns off a lot of people. Most people look at legal ways of getting into a powerful position. One of the most obvious is being in some position of government. Even if you don't have the stamina to get to be President of the United States and keep that position, you can always run for mayor or some kind of counsilman - those potions definitely contain some perks. But there are some other kinds of authority positions that can give you that great feeling of power. If you become a fireman, you can get the admiration of your fellow citizens for doing what can be a dangerous job and helping your city out. An even more admired position of power is becoming a police officer. That role definitely comes with some danger, but if you are willing to accept that risk, you'll find you'll have ample opportunity to steer the public you encounter on your beat in many different ways.

Unfortunately, when it comes to legal positions of power like some I have just described, there have been many times when a quotation by John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton made in the nineteenth century has proven to be very true: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." While I have not personally heard of any real life tales of firemen abusing their position of power, I did see an episode of The Simpsons with Homer Simpson and his friends becoming firemen and exploiting their power. But when it comes to those other so-called legal positions of power I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I have certainly heard true tales of people in those positions going way too far with their power and engaging in illegal activity, and I think you have as well. The various true stories of politicians getting so drunk with power and descending into corruption (and worse) are endless; who hasn't heard of what American President Richard Nixon did that when revealed forced him to resign? Then there are the many cases with police officers. I'm sure you have heard your share of stories of police officers doing things like using their position to stop and harass various citizens (often minorities) in various ways. But there are darker true stories out there. There is the case of the police force in Mexico, which I've heard has the majority of police officers taking in one form or another bribes from the local drug trade. I have also heard about the police force in Brazil, which I've heard several times have had select officers secretly forming vigilante gangs to kill various people who live in poverty, even if there is no real proof that these poor people are involved in the high level of crime that plagues the country.

When I hear true tales of corrupt police officers like the ones that I have just described, it certainly makes me feel sad... but at the same time, part of me is also intrigued. I wonder what on earth happened to these people to turn them from people who (probably) entered the police force Scarred Citywith good intentions in mind to people who are no better than the criminals they are supposed to apprehend. Over the years, I have come up with a few theories. Maybe they eventually got frustrated with dealing with the rules that held them back. Maybe they saw criminals living the high life, and wondered why they couldn't do so as well. Actually, there don't seem to be any easy answers - it seems there have to be many things that push a cop to become corrupt. I'm still looking for answers, and one avenue I've used is the world of B movies. Over the years they have given me a little insight, as well as entertainment. So there were two reasons why I decided to watch the corrupt cop movie Scarred City. Actually, there were three - it was a Millennium/Nu Image production, the modern day Cannon Films whose complete output I've been trying to watch. The central protagonist of the movie is a fellow by the name of John Trace (Baldwin, Bio-Dome) a police officer who at the beginning of the movie is in danger of being drummed out of the force for using his firearm on his beat on several occasions. Before that can happen, however, superior officer Lieutenant Devon (Palminteri, Mulholland Falls) asks Trace if he would like to be transferred to a special squad made up of police officers who supposedly have his same frame of mind of getting bad guys by any means necessary. Trace soon agrees, and he joins the squad, but soon sees that the squad is more or less just a glorified vigilante squad that freely kills people. He is horrified, but feels trapped. But one day during a raid on a mobster's mansion, Trace manages to save the life of a woman named Candy (Carrere, Wayne's World) while his fellow squad members kill everybody else inside. Eventually, the squad finds out about Trace's action, and shortly after Trace and Candy are on the run not only from the squad, but from the city's mobsters.

If you are as much of a fan of movies that come from Millennium/Nu Image as I am, you know that while they have made all kinds of movies to date, there is one kind of movie they are best known for. It's the same kind of movie that Cannon Films was best known for. You guessed it - action. Millennium/Nu Image certainly has made some great action movies over the years, though the fact that this one was written and directed by Ken Sanzel, the writer/director of Lone Hero - which I had mixed feelings about - gave me a little pre-viewing pause. But as it turns out, Scarred City does not disappoint for the most part, especially when it comes to the action sequences. The action in the movie is very well done. Sanzel manages to successfully handle two key ingredients in the action sequences. The first is a sense of chaos; you don't feel that the participants in the various gun battles and car chases are going through the motions and following strict choreography. You feel that they are really struggling to stay alive and on top of the situation. It's probably because of this that the second key ingredient manages to be generated, that being a great feeling of excitement and exhilaration. While the action isn't quite up to that coming from masters of action like John Woo or Isaac Florentine, it all the same will manage to quench the thirst of those craving some high quality screen violence. An unbelievable amount of bullets get to be fired, and the surrounding scenery as well as some characters get visibly chewed up by them. Sanzel also makes sure on occasion to throw in an especially brutal action by the characters, moments that will raise the eyebrows of even the most jaded action fan and add some welcome extra punch to the impact of the action.

As for other aspects of Sanzel's direction, there is additional merit to be found in the movie. Sanzel was working with a tight budget, which occasionally shows (the police precinct interiors look suspiciously like a long abandoned building hastily fitted with props), but for the most part the movie looks pretty good under his control, with professional photography as well as lighting. He also manages to make some impressive camera movements, from using cranes to hand held cameras. Most importantly, besides getting the action down right, he manages to unfold the events of the movie one after another fairly quickly so that there are no dead spots along the way. And this is despite the fact that his screenplay could have used a bit more work before filming started. The idea of the story isn't a bad one, and Sanzel does manage to on occasion to throw in some intelligence, like giving a good explanation as to why the protagonists do not simply go to the press to report the dirty dealings that are going on. But there are some gaping holes in the story. They range from the never explained fact as to why Baldwin's character at the beginning of the movie is still on the beat after being already involved in three shootings in the past year to how it's also not explained as to why he has never even gotten the slightest wind in the past of the vigilante cop squad, especially since they seem to shoot and kill everybody that they feel is in their way. There are a significant number of moments like those throughout Scarred City, and I don't know whether it was due to Sanzel's possible weakness as a writer or if he was forced by circumstances (producers' interference and/or the low budget?) to cut out key explanations in order to get the movie completed.

The weaknesses of the screenplay for Scarred City also extend to the characters in the movie. Actually, it's more with Baldwin's character than anyone else. In the opening of the movie, where Baldwin shoots and kills an unarmed drug dealer he thought was pulling a gun out of his pocket, and over the body spits out, "Stupid f**k!", Baldwin's character is instantly soured to us in the audience. Although the movie subsequently makes attempts to redeem the character, it was hard at times to sympathize with this guy, especially since Baldwin himself doesn't seem to be trying hard with his acting. He comes across for the most part as bland and unemotional. As Baldwin's adversary, Palminteri does come across somewhat better. Thankfully he does not chew the scenery or come across as a cartoon character. He isn't a classic villain, but he gets his job done acceptably, though I wish that his (inevitable) send-off at the end was a bit more spectacular. However, things are a lot better when it comes to Carrere's character. Unlike most movies of this sort where strippers and prostitutes are portrayed as cowardly and weak, this is not the case here. Carrere's character is written to have a surprising amount of backbone as well as some good smarts, even when the bullets start to fly right around her. Carrere's tough but sympathetic performance manages to compliment the writing of her character very well, and this character ends up being a very likable woman who isn't the least bit annoying. Although Carrere's good performance and well-written character in Scarred City are surrounded by those notable flaws that I mentioned earlier, there is still enough good stuff overall to be found in the movie to make a viewing experience at the very least worth the cost of a rental.

(Posted September 1, 2022)

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See also: Cole Justice, Self Defense, The Sweeper