"Chill Factor"

Chemo-terrorists! Car crashes! Ice cream men! But not even Cuba Gooding Jr. can thaw out this late-summer dud.

Published September 3, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Chill Factor" is a typical action movie with an atypical hook: Not many action movies give advice on trout fishing. "The trout is the perfect hunter," one character tells a young friend as they cast their lines into a clear Montana stream. "He's the master of his realm." But there are ways to outwit him, to beat him at his own game, he notes, adding, "Power without caution is death."

True, very true. And he should know. The character who gives us that nugget of wisdom is chemical-weapons scientist Richard Long (David Paymer), who's trying to enjoy the good life in a small Montana town after causing the deaths of 18 soldiers in a careless experiment some 10 years before. Little does he know that the Army major who took the rap for the accident, Brynner (Peter Firth), has just been released from Leavenworth. He's now completely bonkers and is out to both kick Long's sorry ass and get his paws on "Elvis," the potent chemical weapon that caused the whole brouhaha in the first place.

That's the setup for "Chill Factor," Hugh Johnson's directorial debut, a movie that wants to be "Speed" so badly that it runs roughshod over the essentials, including a decent script. "Chill Factor" lumbers by in a muddle of car chases and explosions as Cuba Gooding Jr. (a charming, hapless ice cream truck driver) and Skeet Ulrich (a young, troubled drifter -- is there any other kind?) try to outrun the crazed Brynner and his muscle-bound techno-thugs after a chain of events leads to their being entrusted with Elvis. The gimmick? The weapon is heat-activated, which means it can't reach a temperature of more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit or it will fry the skin off the inhabitants of half the state. Where's that Good Humor truck when you really need it?

The action in "Chill Factor" isn't badly directed -- it's just mundane. Save for a sequence in which a small motorboat is used as a sled, there's nothing much new here: You get a showdown between a hero and a bad guy on top of a truck (complete with convenient overhanging rock formation looming on the road ahead); a madman spilling chemical-weapon crystals not far from where a traveling carnival teems with happy, laughing tots; and several frantic scrambles for ice.

Paymer, a fine actor who usually shines even in small, throwaway roles (most notably in Billy Crystal's "Mr. Saturday Night"), doesn't seem motivated to do much here. He tries to play the ambitious-but-irresponsible scientist with a quiet dignity, as if he'd be happy just to slither out of the movie as quickly as possible. Firth
gets all the best lines in a script loaded with howlers.
("So I'll be locked safely away in a hole along with my
secret sins -- and yours," he says to Paymer just
before he's thrown in the clink.) But he isn't a very
convincing crazy man, nor is he a fun one: His vacant
eyes and perpetual half-smile give him a bland
sea-creature look.

Ulrich, his sullen persona supposedly hiding secret depth, is really just sullen. And Gooding, a comic actor with loads of charm and terrific timing, is pleasant enough to watch. (He manages to enliven even Ulrich now and then.) But his charisma is watered-down and wasted here. "When this is all over, remind me to kick your ass!" he tells Ulrich at one point. It may be his most memorable line of dialogue, which gives you an idea of what he has to work with.

Perhaps it's true that power without caution is death. In terms of explosions, there's lots of power in "Chill Factor," but as far as writing and direction go, nobody seems to have used much caution. I'm happy to report that when I saw "Chill Factor," there wasn't a single trout in the audience. Maybe they really are smarter than we think.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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