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Cold Comfort: 'Whiteout' Blows Into Town

Poor Kate Beckinsale, mired in a raging secretarial nail-biter involving swirling fields of correction fluid. All kidding aside, Whiteout kicks off promisingly enough -- imagine the cool snowstorms of potential inherent in a thriller set in the mysterious no woman’s land of Antarctica.

Whiteout opens into the thick of intrigue: it’s 1957 and there’s a gunfight aboard a Soviet plane. It’s a lethal combo of cratefuls of vodka, killer thugs, and all-too-ambitious pilots, and it turns deadly quickly as the aircraft crash-lands and sends us hurtling to the present day. Beckinsale -- eons away from Cold Comfort Farm but still the same well-chilled and cool-headed customer, a quality that has made her an action star of sorts with the Underworld franchise -- is Carrie Stetko, a U.S. Marshall stationed in a remote South Pole base. She’s self-contained, sternly cute (director Dominic Sena’s allegiance to B-movie conventions is made crystal clear as Stetko strips nude for an inexplicable shower scene), and clearly haunted by the past. Her brown-bobbed cop harks back to Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs -- both characters must battle demons without and within.

Stetko’s nemeses are more mysterious: she’s about to fly back to the states and resign from the force until she’s asked to investigate a body, aided by the base’s doctor (Tom Skerritt) and pilot Delfy (Columbus Short). The corpse discovered all by its lonesome, stabbed, stitched up and stickily embedded in the ice (Canada stands in for the South Pole). Stetko follows the murderer’s trail back to another camp, thought to be emptied in anticipation of a storm, where she’s attacked by a blade-swinging killer.

In a tooth-grindingly tense scene, she struggles to escape, shackled to a rope strung between two buildings, in the middle of a blinding blizzard. Yes, everything is physically that much tougher in Antarctica’s harsh environs. It’s equally hard to make out whether the stranger at the abandoned camp who identifies himself as UN investigator (Gabriel Macht) is to be trusted. Still, if you keep your expectations low -- and your frustrations with any narrative manipulation dampened down -- Whiteout provides solid slightly noirish action, and the added interest of the unique, snow-lashed setting.

Whiteout opens today, Sept. 11, in Bay Area theaters.