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A WASTED CHEMISTRY LESSON

THOSE PRETTY BLUE CRYSTALS -- really a top-secret chemical weapon dubbed "Elvis" -- have to be kept below 50 degrees or they'll set off a nuclear-style blast that'll fry every tree and good ol' boy within 100 miles.

The mortally wounded scientist, pursued by a psycho ex-Army major, hopes his fishing buddy (Skeet Ulrich) will find a way to return the crystals in their frozen state to the Army.

So who should appear, in this tiny Montana town, in the dead of night, in the nick of time?

An ice-cream delivery man -- Cuba Gooding Jr. -- who rolls into Jerome, Mont., just as the scientist breathes his last.

This is "Chill Factor," a disaster-action-adventure-comedy from first-time director Hugh Johnson that may rely for suspense on melting ice but offers some pretty decent screen chemistry between Cuba Gooding Jr. and Skeet Ulrich. (Both appeared in "As Good As It Gets," but were never on screen at the same time.)

Moviegoers expecting a comedy may feel they wandered into the wrong movie during the first 20 minutes or so. The action starts out 10 years before on a South Pacific atoll where twerpy scientist Dr. Richard Long (a weak David Paymer) botches the Army's Elvis experiment and kills 18 soldiers. (They die graphically; legs blown off, skin peeling, etc., etc.)

Dr. Long, of course, isn't punished; he's left to tinker with his crystals in peace. But Maj. Andrew Brynner (Peter Firth), the officer in charge, is sentenced to 10 years at Leavenworth, where he suffers a meltdown and turns into a complete psycho. (By way of character development, we get the legend "10 years later" and Firth offering the camera a maniacal stare.) The major emerges from Leavenworth with a Spandex-clad squad of mercenaries who immediately slash all the throats at the Army research lab and steal Elvis.

This is pretty deadly stuff, so it comes as a relief when Cuba Gooding Jr. arrives on screen with that round face and infectious grin.

Gooding, who won a much-deserved Oscar as the only good thing about "Jerry Maguire," can say just about anything here and it's funny. Ulrich, who played a psycho in "Scream" and a zombie in "The Craft," turns in a respectable performance as comic foil despite some goofy spots in the script. (His fishing buddy bonding with Paymer is awkward and the "dark secret" of his past is explained on the fly midway through a frantic chase.)

All the cliches of your basic action-disaster film are here. There's the bumbling country sheriff and smarter sidekick, harrowing drive up mountain road, bad guys driving black vehicles, bad guys on motorcycles, fight scene atop truck, nasty gun-toting blond, dive off cliff. (And 50 would appear to be a magic number: here, the crystals explode if they heat up above 50; in "Speed," the bus exploded when it slowed below 50.)

Johnson worked as a cinematographer for action directors Ridley and Tony Scott and the chase scenes, shot in scenic Utah, are pretty spectacular, although there seem to be a few strange lapses in timing. And, we must ask, why do action movies have to be so darn loud? At one point the ferocious blond (Hudson Leick) kicks Skeet Ulrich with a "boom" that sounds like a hammer hitting a car door.

"Chill Factor" falls about 50 degrees short of being the terrific action film and buddy comedy that "Lethal Weapon" was, but thanks to the laugh factor provided by Gooding Jr., it manages to be less cheesy and more diverting than your garden-variety disaster film like, say, "Outbreak."

What is slightly different here -- and somewhat problematic for an action film -- is the effort to present a villain as a somewhat sympathetic character.

At the start of the film, the Brynner character fears for the safety of his soldiers and kicks up a fuss over the Elvis experiment. Near the end, explaining to an Army buddy from Vietnam why his military career never advanced, he says, "Yeah, I had a small problem with our side murdering civilians."

This leaves one with the uneasy impression that maybe the U.S. Army might be the villain in this caper. Maybe Gooding Jr. and Ulrich's characters shouldn't have trusted the Army with Elvis after all. Now that's a sobering thought.

Review
Chill Factor
Rating: ** 1/2
Action adventure starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Skeet Ulrich. Directorial debut of Hugh Johnson.
Rated R, opening today at area theaters.

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