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Entries in Aspen Extreme [1993] (1)

Saturday
Jan142012

Aspen Extreme (1993)

Summit Entertainment

Last week, I heard rumblings of an Aspen Extreme sequel. I don't know where they came from, as the latest news I could find on the project is nearly a year old. Whatever the case, I hope the filmmakers understand what makes the original so great and apply its lessons to the new movie.

That's right, I just called Aspen Extreme "great". The lack of snarky emoticons in that sentence indicates sincerity, by the way. But I sense that some of you are growing concerned. Let me clarify: despite its dated fashions; cheesy, off-brand rock music; and blatant theft of Top Gun plot points, I found writer/director Patrick Hasburgh's movie to be a surprisingly heartfelt and spectacle-free drama. Looking at the DVD cover art, I'd expected way more groans and eye-rolls than actually occurred (about five).

The film opens in Detroit, where a frustrated Ford assembly line worker named T.J. Burke (Paul Gross) quits his job after being offered a promotion. He sees his life becoming a corporate routine, and decides to leave town with his best friend, Dexter (Peter Berg). They head to Aspen and land jobs as ski instructors. Though they butt heads with the resort's pompous staff and the town's moneyed-elite clientele, T.J. and Dexter make friends with Robin (Teri Polo), a local DJ who doesn't fit in, either.

Because T.J. and Robin are the two most attractive people on the mountain, the screenplay calls for a by-the-numbers, cat-and-mouse courtship. Complicating matters is wealthy businesswoman Bryce Kellogg (Finola Hughes), whose desire for a new boy-toy nudges Aspen Extreme out of Top Gun territory into something resembling Hot Dog: The Movie. You're damn right there'll be misunderstandings, betrayals, and a long-overdue kiss following the climactic Big Competition (in which our heroes score a history-making 40 of a possible 30 points).

Very little in the film's love triangle is surprising,* but Hasburgh keeps things interesting by focusing more on T.J. and Dexter's bromance. On paper, and as performed by Gross and Berg, these characters pop with a warm, good-guy energy that I rarely see in movies. Typically, the handsome lead is followed around by his big-hearted, doofus buddy. But T.J. and Dexter are both goofy, down-to-Earth guys who have no greater ambitions than to make money skiing and enjoy their off hours.

T.J. kicks around the idea of being a writer, but doesn't take it seriously until Bryce encourages him as a way of getting into his snow pants. Motives aside, T.J. aspires to something for the first time in his life as Bryce opens him up to new possibilities and classic literature. I love that Bryce isn't evil in the stock, catty-villain sense. She uses and ditches men, but becomes fully invested during her brief period of interest; she's an emotional venture capitalist.

It's also refreshing to see Robin take a platonic interest in Dexter. As movie best friends always do, the guys have a mid-picture falling-out, fueled by Dexter's bungling of a cocaine deal (more on this in a minute). Sitting alone, drunk, high, and hopeless in his now-vacant shack (actually, an old caboose), Robin knocks on Dexter's door one morning; she bursts in, throws out all his drugs and booze, and forces him to clean up and get back in shape. The scene is touching and funny, and helps round out two characters that would typically serve at the pleasure of whichever beefcake's name appears above the film's title.

Keep in mind, my tolerance for awful movies is pretty high. It's very possible (likely, even) that you'll have a hard time appreciating the nuances here, and spend much of the movie squirming in embarrassment. There's a lot to squirm at.

Aspen Extreme's first issue is its timeline. The film takes place over the course of two years, but far too much is glossed over in the span of seconds. One shot establishes a "Close of Season" sign. It's followed by a snow-free shot of Robin's cabin, and then Robin and T.J. hiking, talking about how quickly the new ski season is approaching. The story feels like it should max out at a couple of months, tops.

Next, we have the uncharacteristically silly drug-paranoia montage of Dexter waiting for a connection at a bar. Drenched in sweat and anxiously eyeballing everyone that walks into the place, he finally gives up and flushes the whole stash down the toilet. The scene is a necessary script catalyst, but it plays like Hasburgh uncomfortably cutting and pasting Ray Liotta's Goodfellas freakout into his buds-and-bunnies flick. Which, I suppose he is, and it doesn't work--except as comedy.

The last problem I'll mention (though it's not the last you'll find, I'm sure) is the ski resort's ubiquitous promo poster. It features an alleged action shot of T.J. roaring down a mountain, but the face was obviously doctored. T.J. makes a quip about the photographer catching the one shot where he had his eyes open, but that doesn't cut it. Plus, it further underscores Aspen Extreme's tricky relationship to Top Gun: not only are the stories very similar, Gross looks like the result of a science project involving Tom Cruise and Chris Noth's DNA. Luckily, there's more to his acting than just a weirdly pretty face.**

This is a really odd movie and, I imagine, an impossible one to market. It's low on adrenaline (the skiing sequences are uniformly boring, with the exception of one in which T.J. falls down a hole--which made me gasp). It's quiet where others are bombastic. It has no easily defined or defeated villain. This is a warm and fuzzy relationship film about two best friends and the nice girl they meet on a journey of self-discovery. The only thing "extreme" about it was my surprise at the size of its considerable heart.

So, yes, I'm very curious about the sequel. It'll probably be a generic, action-packed CG extravaganza.

But, who knows? I've been wrong before.

*I'd expected Bryce and Robin to have at least one scene together. These movies always include a penultimate showdown between the two women vying for the heroe's heart--often denoted by some variation of, "I've got money/power/influence and a smokin' hot body--what do you have to offer him?" Hasburgh earns major points for skipping this nonsense.

**A face, incidentally, that we're meant to believe is only 25 years old, even though Gross was 34 when the movie came out. It's not a big deal, but I involuntarily snort-laughed pretty hard when T.J. mentioned his age.