Chill Factor

Directed by Hugh Johnson

Opens Sept. 1

It's bad enough when a major studio — in this case Warner Bros. — blows $40 million (or more) on a by-the-numbers film. It's worse when they blow it on a by-the-numbers film made by people who don't know how to count. We're not talking literal math here, but rather the ability to negotiate simple plot development in an internally consistent way from scene A to scene B — an ability apparently lacking in some or all of the key behind-the-camera personnel in Chill Factor, as worthless a piece of garbage as we've seen this year. For sheer inanity in thrillers, one would have to think back to, let's say, 1996's Chain Reaction — the one where Keanu Reeves plays a college-dropout machinist who figures out the key to cold fusion — for comparison.

Chill Factor takes great pains to set up a backstory to give complexity to its supporting characters, but the result is not so much complexity as sheer nonsense. At an Army lab on a remote island, arrogant scientist Richard Long (David Paymer) insists on testing a new compound over the objections of his wiser, more honorable military counterpart, Capt. Andrew Brynner (Peter Firth). When the compound, code-named Elvis, has about the same effect on 18 soldiers as that bucket of water had on the Wicked Witch of the West, Brynner is made the scapegoat and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Ten years later, Long, stricken with guilt, has become the world's most lovable and conscientious researcher, while Brynner, stricken with disillusionment, has become the embodiment of pure evil. (Firth's utterly blank, dead-fish manner is impressive at first but grows wearying.) Brynner tracks down his ex-colleague to the remote research facility in Montana where Long has spent all these years trying, without success, to figure out how to stabilize the formula (rather than, say, destroy it).

Brynner and his team of mercenaries — who must have some heavy backers, given the sophisticated equipment they use — break into the lab and shoot the good doctor, but he lives just long enough to escape to the nearby town and hand Elvis over to his fishing buddy Tim Mason (Skeet Ulrich), a short-order cook at the local diner. Before Long croaks, he informs Tim that Elvis, housed in a metal canister topped by a handy digital thermometer, is harmless as long as its temperature stays below 50 degrees Fahrenheit; if it warms beyond 50 degrees, it will melt and kill everybody within hundreds of miles, causing their flesh to drip off their bones like ... like ... well, like a computer-generated special effect of flesh dripping off bones.

Luckily for Tim, Arlo (Cuba Gooding Jr.) has just stopped by to make an ice-cream delivery in his dilapidated but refrigerated truck. Since Brynner and company are on his tail, Tim hijacks Arlo and his truck in hopes of getting Elvis to Fort Magruder before Montana becomes even less populous than it already is. Henceforth, Tim and Arlo become that reliable staple of action movies — the reluctant squabbling buddy team that must overcome basic dislike and develop a bond of loyalty. You've seen such teams before in films like Midnight Run and 48HRS (though it's a long slide from De Niro/Grodin and Nolte/ Murphy to Ulrich/Gooding).

Gooding's shtick here is reasonably funny even though familiar; Ulrich is a complete zero, which may not be his fault — first-time director Hugh Johnson and writers Drew Gitlin and Mike Cheda give him nothing to do but look cute and act as a foil for Gooding's wisecracks.

You can reasonably predict most of the rest of the plot: Arlo and Tim desperately try to keep Elvis cold and out of the hands of Brynner, while pursued by both the bad guys and the stupid local cops, who have decided that Tim killed Dr. Long. The only time what's going to happen is unclear is when the filmmakers open up holes big enough to drive an 18-wheeler through — or an ice-cream truck — and there are many such times.

For instance, we learn late in the game that Brynner plans to sell Elvis to the highest bidder in some kind of ridiculous online auction. (Point your browsers to weapons/flesh-eating.htm.) The whole scheme grinds to a halt while he stages a live videocam demonstration of its effects on, of course, Tim and Arlo. But in the original plan, he didn't know he'd have any subjects. And he has no way of knowing how Elvis will behave after 10 years of Long's work on it. And it's a stupid idea anyway.

There are continuity gaffes: We see a small motorboat get seriously dented as our duo rides it down a mountainside into a river. (Don't ask.) We see that same boat in the river moments later, looking showroom fresh. (This isn't just the clever observation of a trained eye. Everyone in the theater seemed to notice it, which is more than one can say for the hundreds of Warner Bros. employees who presumably saw the scene when there was still time to fix it.)

So there they are, heading down the river, being tracked by the villains, and then suddenly they're on dry land ... in Missoula ... stealing a car. (That was easy.)

There are crucially unclear setups: Is Elvis an explosive or a biological agent or both? If it's an explosive, then the good guys' plan to secure it in the climax makes no sense; if it's not an explosive, then simply keeping it in its original metal container after it melts should do the trick.

Perhaps the most irritating goof of all is when Brynner gives Tim 15 minutes to deliver Elvis to him. When Tim hands the stuff over, all but the least savvy viewers will guess that Tim has made a switch; but most people in the audience will wonder how, in 15 minutes minus travel time, Tim has managed to mock up an exact duplicate of Elvis and its container, using only what can be found in a small dry-goods store. Or why we then see Tim transporting Elvis outside of its canister but see it moments later mysteriously back inside the original canister, or in a perfect facsimile.

This isn't just nit-picking. OK, so Tim can climb ladders and fight off bad guys despite having just taken a bullet to the leg. Why not? But these other sorts of errors — errors in crucial plot matters and errors in setting up the rules of the game — undercut any chance of suspense. How can we care about what happens in a universe where the gods can (and do) arbitrarily wave their magic wands and change the laws of logic on a whim?

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