High-end actioners of late have been criticized for their overload of testosterone, but “Chill Factor” could have used an increased dose of the stuff. Utterly lacking the drive and roller-coaster energy expected of top action pics, this latest try at repackaging “Speed” is a Kmart version of a Jerry Bruckheimer production. The risk inherent in the against-the-grain casting of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Skeet Ulrich fails to pay any dividends, and this deep-popcorn project arrives much too late in the waning days of summer to generate much B.O. heat. Ancillary venues await.
Ridley Scott protege Hugh Johnson is the tyro helmer, and though he shares Scott’s tin ear for humor, he hasn’t yet developed Scott’s ability to turn intense physical drama into something visually arresting. Script by Drew Gitlin and Mike Cheda does not help the cause, employing the popular fear of chemical weapons for a high-concept mishmash that, at various times, brazenly borrows not just from “Speed,” but from Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear,” “Breakdown,” “The Rock,” “48HRS.” and “Midnight Run.” Amid all this, filmers forget to inject the genre piece with the essential ingredient of new thrills to maintain core aud’s attention.
The borrowings begin during a 10-minute prologue set on remote Horn Island in the South Pacific, where chemical scientist Dr. Richard Long (David Paymer) is capping a series of tests for the Army of “Elvis,” his long-in-development chemical weapon. Supervising military honcho Capt. Andrew Brynner (Peter Firth) is darkly skeptical about the device, and wants his men cleared off the isle before a final test. Long’s nerdy assistant, Telstar (Kevin J. O’Connor), asks, “Hey doc, what’s up?” — it is a Warner Bros. release — but it’s not long before he and the rest of the outdoor crew are fried to a crisp by the exploding Elvis, which must be maintained below a temperature of 50 degrees. Long’s response borrows from Robert Oppenheimer’s reaction to his Los Alamos nuke experiment: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Ten years pass, and Brynner — tried and imprisoned as fall guy for the tragedy by a military court — is released from prison and filled with a bitter longing for revenge against Long, who has continued his Elvis work for the Army in Montana. He’s a fly-fishing buddy of diner clerk Tim Mason (Ulrich), and offers some fishing tips that Tim no doubt will find useful later. At the diner, Brynner portentously visits Long, and then preps his obscenely well-armed, black-leather-clad crew comprising Hollywood’s standard mix of cold-eyed, multiracial, multigender baddies.
Just as Brynner’s black-ops team hatches its plot to kill Long, steal Elvis and auction it off to the highest international bidder (details of which are revealed only sparingly through the three acts), it so happens that ice cream delivery guy Arlo (Gooding) is making a stop at the diner. Badly wounded and near death after Brynner’s invasion of his lab, Long stumbles into the diner and, shepherding Elvis — a gooey blue substance — explains that Tim has to get the weapon safely (on ice, natch) to nearby Fort McGruder before Brynner catches up. After the first of several unfunny exchanges between Tim and a resistant Arlo, the duo blow out of Dodge with Elvis in Arlo’s truck.
This would seem to set up a series of increasingly tense, heart-stopping chase sequences, with the twin pressures of the remorseless Brynner storm troopers on one hand and, on the other, the need to keep Elvis cool. Instead of a continuous sequence of action, though, Gitlin and Cheda pen individual chase scenes, with the action flow continually interrupted by lame timeouts and comic relief.
Pacing is alternately slack and taut, just as the tone is schizoid — straitlaced enough to take the threat of chem weapons seriously but just this side of “Midnight Run”-style comedy. Most critically, pic lacks the decisive energy to deliver either solidly consistent action or a smart sendup of the genre. Johnson’s ramrod direction and Firth’s utterly blank and non-ironic monotone delivery suggest the former, while Gooding’s antics suggest the latter. Biggest blown opportunity, though, is building black humor around keeping Elvis near the chill factor; instead, there are obvious one-liners, such as Army investigator Col. Leo Vitelli’s (Daniel Hugh Kelly) declaration that “Elvis has left the building.”
More disappointing is the combo of Ulrich and Gooding, who have amply demonstrated a wide range of thesping chops on their own but simply do not click here. Ulrich would seem to be an ideal choice as a young slacker innocent far out of his depth and forced to summon up hidden resources, but the lively imagination this actor tends to bring to his work is AWOL. Gooding comes off as desperately trying to salvage a slumping affair with some now-familiar shtick, and never rises above his role as a mere plot device.
While physical production impressively shows off a notable range of outdoor locales, they too often resemble a more Southwestern U.S. milieu (primary lensing took place in Utah) than the story’s Montana setting. Several opportunities for eye-filling vistas and set pieces — particularly during key action at a dam and in an enormous highway tunnel — are underwhelming. Tech credits are workmanlike pro.