A lot of people have joked about Cuba Gooding Jr.’s post-“Jerry Maguire,” post-Oscar career, and how he’s made almost nothing but bad movies since then. In the interest of fairness, I should point out that these jokes are funny and appropriate and people should make more of them.
One sterling example of Gooding’s bombs — the “Cuba missile crisis,” as they’re collectively known — is “Chill Factor,” a shouty, explodey action comedy from 1999. It was released over Labor Day weekend, which means the studio realized it was too dumb for autumn, but not entertaining enough for summer.
This movie is so bad it had to star Cuba Gooding Jr. AND Skeet Ulrich! At first they just wanted Cuba, but then the technicians at the lab were like, “Nope, it’s too bad for one guy to pull it off alone. You’re going to need Skeet.”
Skeet and Cuba don’t show up for a while, though. You can’t just rush into a Skeet-and-Cuba affair. First we have a sequence on a tropical island where the U.S. government is testing a chemical weapon to see how effective it is at killing people, as this is something the government would like to be better at.
The weapon turns out to be even better at perpetrating slaughter than anyone realized, insofar as it vaporizes everybody within a five-mile radius, including the soldiers who were hanging around the testing site. The dweeby main scientist, Dr. Long (David Paymer), is very sorry about this, but not as sorry as the gruff military commander, Col. Brynner (Peter Firth), who takes the fall for the accident and spends 10 years in military prison.
So we are off to a very fun start!
Now it’s 10 years later. Freshly released from prison, Brynner is just angry and bitter enough to be one of those psycho ex-military guys in movies who steal weapons of mass destruction and hold the world hostage. Meanwhile, Dr. Long, who is racked with guilt over his role in the tragedy, has spent these 10 years dealing with that guilt by continuing to develop the weapon for the government. We all heal differently, I guess.
But I believe we were promised some Skeet ‘n’ Cuba?? Yes indeed. Skeet plays Mason, a shiftless ne’er-do-well who lives in a folksy Montana town and works at a homey diner owned by someone named, obviously, Darlene. Dr. Long’s research facility is nearby, and he and Mason sometimes go fly-fishing together. They are pals, though Dr. Long has not told Mason about his tormented conscience or his ongoing efforts to make his weapon deadlier. Mostly he tells Mason wise things about fly-fishing that can also be applied to life, in that ponderous tone of voice that you can already imagine hearing as an echoey voice-over later in the movie.
Brynner, his parole papers still wet from the printer, has assembled a team of nameless goons to break into the lab and steal the now-deadlier-than-ever chemical weapon. They shoot Dr. Long in the gut, but he escapes with the weapon in a paper bag, drives several miles to the diner, and tells Mason what to do with it before dying.
Oh, and Cuba is here, finally! He’s playing Arlo, an excitable, screeching dope who drives a refrigerated delivery truck. He happens to be at the diner when Dr. Long stumbles in — which is fortunate, since the main thing Dr. Long tells them about the weapon is that it will detonate unless it is kept cold.
COLD?? Why, coldness is the chief characteristic of the refrigerated deliver truck that is now sitting just outside this very diner! Gentlemen, we have ourselves a movie!
The weapon is in the form of neon-colored goo that is housed in a canister that looks very much like — and could very well be — a cylinder from the pneumatic tube at a drive-through bank. Mason and Arlo have to get the goo to a military base some distance away before Brynner catches up with them, and they have to keep it colder than 50 degrees or else everybody will die.
Now, if you’ve seen “Speed” recently, you’ll realize that the people who made “Chill Factor” had also seen “Speed” recently. Instead of “Speed” it’s “Temperature.” Brynner is Dennis Hopper, Skeet is Keanu, and Cuba is Sandra Bullock. Once that’s in place, the thing pretty much writes, directs, acts, edits, and distributes itself.
So Arlo and Mason are driving a refrigerated truck as fast as they can over treacherous mountain highways while Brynner and his squad of black-clad goons chase them on motorcycles and fire weapons at them. Numerous explosions and collisions cause significant collateral damage in both property and human life, but all the characters who have names are OK.
Because this is supposed to be an action comedy, Cuba and Skeet bicker stupidly with one another. They bicker about stupid things, and they bicker in a stupid manner. To start with, Arlo doesn’t want to let Mason use the truck to get the goo canister to safety, even though it is the only option and failure to do so will result in the death of every person within a hundred miles, including himself. Mason has to force him to drive at gunpoint! So the fact that Arlo is a petulant idiot is one thing that causes many arguments, as I would suppose it has done for Arlo all his life.
Arlo, since he’s played by Cuba Gooding Jr., is a high-pitched, over-caffeinated Cowardly Lion type, and Mason is an exasperated-but-keeping-his-cool Han Solo type, and all they do is yell angry dumb things at each other like “You’re gonna get us killed!” and “When this is all over, remind me to kick your ass!” Fortunately, their inane bro-banter is frequently drowned out by the comparatively soothing sound of things exploding around them as Brynner’s people continue their bafflingly futile efforts to apprehend them and take the goo canister.
At last the truck smashes into another vehicle and Arlo and Mason must escape on foot, carrying the goo canister with them. Did you like it earlier in the movie when a refrigerated truck happened to be nearby just when it was needed? Coincidences are fun, aren’t they? Then you will also like it now, when the vehicle Mason and Arlo have run into happens to be towing a boat, which Arlo and Mason use as a sled to slide down a fortuitously placed steep hill into a dizzyingly convenient river that happens to be glacier-fed, so the water is very cold and Mason can keep the goo canister stable by floating it from a fishing line behind them.
This is all good news for them but bad news for us. Now that they’ve ditched Brynner and have a few calm moments as they paddle down the river, there’s nothing for them to do but have a conversation where they reveal their backstories and start bonding as friends. Didn’t think you’d miss the shouting and exploding, did you?
In the interest of full disclosure I should tell you that this is where I took a bathroom break from the movie and did not pause the DVD player when I did so. When I returned they had gotten out of the river and were in a town.
Brynner wants to negotiate with them for the weapon (or at least pretend to negotiate so he can take the weapon and kill them anyway), and here is where Mason’s fly-fishing days with Dr. Long come in handy. He recalls the scientist telling him how to catch trout: “Create a piece of bait that sends the fish’s instinct into overdrive, forcing him to strike,” says Dr. Long’s ghost voice in Mason’s head. “And only then does our noble friend realize that the prey can bite back.” Mason’s resulting plan is to give Brynner a canister of fake goo and skedaddle with the real stuff, which is a little less elegant than it sounded like Dr. Long was going for.
The weapon is eventually neutralized, of course, with Brynner being killed and Mason and Arlo unfortunately living to banter moronically another day. The film ends with the pair scheming to use their semi-heroic efforts as a way to pick up girls. Sadly, it works. Good luck getting a word in edgewise on that double date, ladies.