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(2002) (Rufus Sewell, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) (PG-13)

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Action/Adventure: Members of a TV commercial crew try to avoid a Serbian war criminal and his henchman while on location in the snowy Austrian mountains.
Jeffrey (RUPERT GRAVES) and Ian (RUFUS SEWELL) are partners in a TV commercial production house that specializes in outrageous spots. Ian, the director, occasionally gets annoyed with Jeffrey, the businessman, when he promises that which might not be possible. For their latest campaign regarding a digital video camera, Jeffrey has informed their client that they're going to shoot part of it in front of a real avalanche.

Accordingly, they assemble a collection of skiers and snowboarders including Silo (JOE ABSOLOM), Kittie (JANA PALLASKE) and gold medallist Chloe (BRIDGETTE WILSON-SAMPRAS), to be in front of the camera. Behind it will be daredevil photographer Will (DEVON SAWA) and German production aide Mark (HEINO FERCH). To get the right shot, they head off for the Austrian Alps where they end up in an unfinished resort on the top of a mountain courtesy of local chopper pilot Zoran (JEAN-PIERRE CASTALDI).

Unbeknownst to them, the resort - that's busy with Serbian workers - is also the hideout of Slobovan Pavle (KLAUS LÍWITSCH), a Serbian war criminal who's recently faked his own death in an airline accident. Meeting up with his girlfriend, Yana (LILIANA KOMOROWSKA), and his volatile son, Slavko (DAVID SCHELLER), Pavle is plotting his next heinous move.

Yet, when he realizes that the commercial crew captured his image on their camera, he wants to make sure that they don't get out alive. From that point on, and as the team tries to set up their shot, they realize they're in for more than just a hard day of work and do what they can to avoid the madman and his henchmen.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Filmmakers love the surprise plot device. While that could obviously apply to horror films with their "jump scenes" or the unexpected, knock your socks off ending that some movies unleash, I'm referring more to the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time setup. Or is that the right people, time and place scenario?

It depends on how you look at it, but one only need think of films such as "Die Hard," "Jurassic Park" and even "The Exorcist" for examples. In them, the protagonist finds their life, day or specific event interrupted by unexpected terrorists, dinosaurs or demonic forces. In turn, the latter group's efforts are thwarted by the resolve of the first group, culminating in a big cinematic finale.

The surprise, of course, doesn't apply to the viewer who's privy to the setup and ensuing clash before it occurs, but that hasn't prevented Hollywood from recycling the formula one decade after another. Back in 1993, one such film pitted a resourceful mountain rescue expert against a bunch of upset thieves in the snowy Rockies in Renny Harlin's high octane and appropriately titled "Cliffhanger."

Following suit, novice screenwriter Michael Zaidan and director Christian Duguay ("The Art of War," "Screamers") have taken a cue from that film with "Extreme Ops." While extreme skiers and the accompanying commercial crew have replaced the rescue expert, and a Serbian war criminal and his men have taken the place of the Treasury thieves, the basic plot thrust is otherwise quite similar and definitely familiar.

The result in an action flick that contains some decent bouts of skiing and snowboarding footage and related thrills, but little else. Most of that fault lies with Zaidan's script (although the pounding but banal rock soundtrack doesn't help matters). It offers few surprises, some stilted dialogue, unlikely behavior and developments, and little imagination in reworking the genre formula.

Granted, there's not a great deal of leeway to begin with, but this sort of story has been done better before. The only real surprise is that it takes around an hour before the first confrontation takes place. That wouldn't be such a bad thing if this were a mini-series, but at just 90 some minutes, it's a long and dramatically uneventful setup.

Despite the introductory hour, we don't really come to care or know about the characters beyond some superficial characteristics. Thus, beyond the occasional moments of outdoor daringness and snow-based foolhardy behavior, the film plods along - from a dramatic and storytelling aspect -- for the first hour as we wait for the inevitable to occur (and watch some bad acting in the process).

Once it does, such scenes don't have as much visceral impact on the viewer as they should. A great deal of that stems from the old "the movie's only as good as the villain" fact, and the antagonist here is quite weak.

Sure, he's a gruff bad guy who has no qualms about trying to kill people. Yet, since we know next to nothing about him and don't really see much of him during that first hour (and only hear one nebulous line of dialogue about his upcoming plans), his battle with the good guys doesn't carry as much weight as it should or engage the viewer the way we'd like it to.

The film's signature set pieces involve all of the skiing and snowboarding stunts and footage. While there's some spectacular work present, one could go off and watch any number of Warren Miller's ski documentaries etc. for pretty much the same stuff, only without the "drama" but with more such footage.

Then there are the sequences where the commercial crew sets off and then outruns various avalanches (first to film it for the spot and then as offensive and defensive measures). Despite the thrilling sequences, a similar one in "XXX" already beat this one to the punch (although that wasn't the first time it was used as a plot device) and some of the footage obviously looks fabricated.

For the most part, however, many of the skiing, snowboarding and various stunts do appear real (if occasionally assisted by some quick editing). Nevertheless, they're all flash and no substance. While those into such "extreme sports" might get off on the footage and various outrageous stunts, all of that's dramatically empty.

Playing the "old man" of the bunch, Rufus Sewell ("A Knight's Tale," "Bless the Child") looks like he's bored stiff, while that latter adjective certainly describes the acting style of Bridgette Wilson-Sampras ("The Wedding Planner," "Love Stinks"), regardless of how appealing she might look to the eye.

Joe Absolom ("Long Time Dead," "Antonio and Jane") and Jana Pallaske (making her American acting debut) plays the extreme sports addicts, but can't do much with their roles, which also holds true for Devon Sawa ("Slackers," "Final Destination"), Heino Ferch ("Run Lola Run," "Straight Shooter") and Liliana Komorowska ("The Art of War," "Screamers").

Klaus L÷witsch ("Firefox," "The Marriage of Maria Braun") and David Scheller ("Heart Over Head," "Kanak Attack") head up the antagonistic side of the cast, but never transcend their B movie villain trappings and absolutely flat character development and portrayal.

If you want to see a thrilling "Die Hard" type film set in snowy environs, rent "Cliffhanger" while you should check out Miller's ski films for lots of exciting downhill footage. While this film tries to combine the two, its weak and uninspired script undermines the effort. "Extreme Ops" rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed November 26, 2002 / Posted November 27, 2002

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