RonReaco Lee, Bruce Campbell

Sam Axe is stumbling down a hill, throwing himself at a couple of armed soldiers who drag him off to their leader. He tells them in broken Spanish he just escaped from the Flaming Sword guerilla group. "Cut! Very good," shouts a familiar voice through a megaphone. Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe, the hotly anticipated prequel starring Bruce Campbell and directed by Jeffrey Donovan, is under way.

The movie is being filmed 1,500 miles away, 11,000 feet higher and 40 degrees cooler than Miami's balmy climes, the usual backdrop for USA's hit. Today's shoot is on a frigid, oxygen-deprived Andes peak topped by a 45-foot statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking Bogota, Colombia.

In the tale, set five years ago, Navy SEAL Axe transforms from respected naval commander to the beer-chugging, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, gold-digging gigolo we've come to love. He's banished to an obscure Colombian outpost where he's simply supposed to cooperate with the local militia hunting for an alleged terrorist group and report back. Fat chance. "Sam gets himself out of a very tough spot and saves a bunch of people, making the powers-that-be very angry in the process," says creator Matt Nix.

The prequel stays true to the series' deft mix of action and humor — much is made of Sam's mangling of Spanish — and as always, who to trust is a coin toss. "It's unusual to do a prequel movie for a series, especially one that's not about the main character," admits Nix. "But I've wanted to write a movie for Bruce Campbell since high school. I grew up watching his movies." Citing Campbell's appeal to the young men his network covets, USA copresident Jeff Wachtel says he would be happy to "have Bruce headline anything for us. Having it be a Burn Notice project is a great way to warm up the audience [a few months] before the show comes back for Season 5 in June."     

The square-jawed recipient of this adulation is the only person macho enough on the chilly set to stride around off camera in a lightweight T-shirt. The newly trim 52-year-old is in his element, despite the scrapes on his arms from being repeatedly knocked into gravelly mud. "Sam's kicking some ass!" he crows, in his modest trailer away from the set filled with rumbling trucks and enough extras tricked out as paramilitary to fill several platoons. Not to mention the real police armed with six-shooters for protection.

"This is like a '40s pulp movie," says Campbell, who proudly cops to the B-movie icon label bestowed on him since 1981's gory hit The Evil Dead. "Every 10 minutes you kiss a girl, you get shot at, you get chased, there's a flaming truck, or something blows up."

He's also digging the romantic heat. "Kiele Sanchez is not only great, she's a hottie," he says of the Lost vet, who plays an American aid worker. Sanchez jumped at the chance to play opposite Campbell. "It is so cool," she says. "I'm a huge fan of Bruce's movies, especially Army of Darkness." Her character's feelings for Sam "are born out of crazy sexual chemistry!" she says. They kiss, she reveals, "but because it's Matt Nix, it's all twisted."

Director Donovan has nothing but compliments for his star. "Bruce is a joy to work with. He really is a pro. He's been doing this for a long time. I think he's about 86, so let's call it 75 years," he says with his familiar toothy grin.

Campbell's lengthy résumé is why Nix says he "was absolutely flabbergasted" when his childhood hero agreed to do the series. "I liked that all the characters were damaged goods," says Campbell. "Some actors groan at long-term commitments, but I don't care how many years Burn Notice runs — I'll be there."

And he goes off to play in the mud some more.

Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe airs Sunday at 9/8c on USA.

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