[Screen It]

(1999) (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Skeet Ulrich) (R)

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Action/Adventure: A mismatched pair of unlikely heroes tries to prevent a renegade former Army officer from obtaining a devastating weapon.
Ten years after a covert military experiment on a remote Pacific island went wrong and killed eighteen servicemen and his assistant, Dr. Richard Long (DAVID PAYMER) is still trying to forget the havoc and death his experiment wrought. Living in the small town of Jerome, Montana, Long still conducts scientific experiments at the local base, but far more enjoys his time fly-fishing with Tim Mason (SKEET ULRICH), a loner/drifter who works in the local greasy spoon and has a checkered past.

Long's life changes, and then ends, when he's visited by Andrew Brynner (PETER FIRTH), a former military officer who took the blame and served ten years in Leavenworth for Long's lethal experiment. Now a free man with a score to settle with his country, Brynner has assembled a team of high-tech terrorists, including icy blond Vaughn (HUDSON LEICK), and plans to steal and then sell "Elvis" -- Long's highly volatile, blue crystal substance -- to the highest international bidder.

Unfortunately for him, Long has already delivered "Elvis" to Mason, along with the directions that the substance remain below fifty degrees Fahrenheit lest it detonate and kill everyone within several hundred miles of it. After Mason and Arlo (CUBA GOODING, JR.), a wisecracking ice cream delivery man, have a run-in with Brynner, they set off en route for Fort Magruder, some ninety miles away.

The two men don't get along with each other -- Arlo only agrees to transport the temperature dependent device in his ice cream truck because Mason held a gun on him -- but find a common bond in trying to avoid Brynner and his team. With the help of Colonel Leo Vitelli (DANIEL HUGH KELLY), who shows up late in the game to assist, Arlo and Mason do what they can to survive Brynner's attacks, avoid the local deputy, Pappas (JIM GRIMSHAW), who's also hot on their trail, and keep "Elvis" below fifty degrees.

OUR TAKE: 2.5 out of 10
I'll be the first to admit that prejudging a movie -- based solely on its trailer and TV commercials -- isn't always the correct or fair way to react before one even actually sees the film. I will admit, however, to doing just that from time to time, especially if the trailers aren't good.

Sometimes such first impressions have been way off base and I've found such movies to be decent or, even rarer, occasionally quite enjoyable. More often than not, however, if the filmmakers and/or the studio's marketing department can't make the trailer look good (usually an impossible task since even horrible movies often have alluring or exciting look previews), that's usually a clear indication of trouble looming ahead.

Such is the case with "Chill Factor," a derivative, run-of-the-mill "buddy" picture where two guys, who don't initially like each other, find themselves having to work together to solve some common problem. You've seen this sort of picture countless times before, with the most popular version being the "Lethal Weapon" films (at least the early ones where the two were more antagonistic toward one another).

Many will also compare this film to "Speed," another action thriller where a bus was going to explode should its speed drop below 50 mph. Here, the bomb will explode if its temperature rises above 50 degrees, thus making one curious if there's something scientifically relevant about the number 50. In "Jurassic Park," did the cloned dinosaurs have 50 chromosomes? In "Contact," did the audio signal from outer space play at 50 decibels? Were there 50 final notes in the "song" played between the scientists and the aliens in "Close Encounters?"

The point of such nitpicking is that if you're going to make a movie about something exploding when a certain number is reached, you don't choose the same one as another already played in a far better film, regardless of whether the units be in miles per hour or Fahrenheit. And if you do, you make darn sure the proceedings are exciting enough to lure the viewer's attention away from such matters.

While Keanu, Sandra and director Jan De Bont managed to keep "Speed" quite thrilling despite the self-limiting premise, unfortunately first time director Hugh Johnson and novice screenwriters Drew Gitlin and Mike Cheda can't. Instead, they deliver a film with a few mediocre moments at best in an otherwise flatly executed story, and certainly don't provide anything new to this worn out genre.

Beyond the overused "two guys who don't get along" schtick, there's also the use of the incredibly flat and barely two-dimensional villain and his dual gender, multiracial team of "bad ass" cronies. They're equipped, par usual, with the latest weaponry and high-tech gear and, of course, obligatorily deliver plenty of lame exchanges. If you're idea of clever writing is dialogue along the lines of "We all know what we have to do, so let's do it" and "Two average citizens risk their lives for their country -- I almost remember what that feels like," then maybe this picture is right up your alley.

That is, of course, as long as you don't mind the typical, idiotic material that shows up in pictures like this. Beyond questionable motivational problems regarding the guys' behavior of risking their lives (as well as them just standing around while Dr. Long bleeds to death in front of them, or Mason climbing along the side of a truck to battle a bad guy who would presumably have a gun, but decides it would be more efficient to fight the young man with his fists), the film has enough "Oh, come on!" moments to be used as a prime cinematic example of how not to make a credible picture.

Not only are the villains of the "Energizer Bunny/Timex" breed (they take a licking and just keep going and going -- especially after their vehicle is blown up by a missile), but they also manage to find and then call Mason's cell phone number.

It gets better, though, when he, in turn, just happens to place a call that gets directly routed to a Colonel in a nearby helicopter ("Hello. U.S. Army. How can I direct your call?" "Yes, I'd like to speak to the guy in the helicopter hovering just outside this tunnel, please"). Then there's the boat ride down a forested mountainside that starts with the guys just managing to wreck their truck near the top of a conveniently cleared path that allows them to travel down the entire mountain without striking a single tree.

It is surprising that these or most any filmmakers, who have no problem lifting elements from other films -- good or bad -- simply can't find it in themselves to copy the "perfect" villain from the original "Die Hard." In that film, Alan Rickman played a multidimensional bad guy who may not have garnered any empathy from the audience, but certainly mesmerized everyone with his mixture of good and bad points.

Here, the villain --as played by Peter Firth ("Mighty Joe Young" and an Oscar nominee for "Equus") -- is so flat as to be cartoonish enough that you half expect him to be able to lie down and slide under doors or turn sideways and thus present little or no surface area that could be struck by returned gunfire. His main sidekick, embodied with malicious but equally flat gusto by Hudson Leick (TV's "Xena: Warrior Princess"), is just a simple variation of a similar character found in the third "Die Hard" film.

The one thing the film does have going for it is the presence of Cuba Gooding, Jr. ("Instinct," "Jerry Maguire"). Playing the befuddled, comic side of the contrasting buddy duo, Gooding gets a few decent lines and moments (such as watching the boss he dislikes squirm at gunpoint), and, for the most part, manages to keep his character mildly entertaining without becoming too irritating.

Skeet Ulrich ("The Newton Boys," "Scream") thus must play the straight man, and isn't quite as effective, what with his near constant sullen demeanor. The biggest problem with the pairing of him and Gooding is that unlike Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the "Lethal Weapon" films, the chemistry between these two (volatile or not) simply doesn't work that well. Their banter isn't that enjoyable and seeing the two at each other's throats or working together simply isn't entertaining.

That pretty much sums up the film overall. While there's enough mayhem to keep things visually stimulating -- but only to a limited and particulary unimaginative degree -- the film is never involving, most of the characters are flat and too much of the plot is recycled from other similarly based films to make it worth seeing. Thus, we give "Chill Factor," a term that may just describe how audiences will react to this film, only a 2.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 26, 1999 / Posted September 1, 1999

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