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A rope, a precipice and gravity

In this man versus mountain film, the people are just another prop. It's the action sequences that matter.

By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000


photo
[Photo: Columbia Pictures]
Peter Garrett (Chris O’Donnell), top, struggles to pull his sister Annie (Robin Tunney) to safety while Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn) tries to reach Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) in Vertical Limit.
Don't let the snowy settings and ski caps fool you. Vertical Limit is a summertime kind of movie, dynamic and dumb, with enough "how'd-they-do-that" cliff-hangers to satisfy action fans.

As a complete movie package, it's nothing to yodel about.

Director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, The Mask of Zorro) aims for the pit of your stomach, the spot that twitches when you peek over a balcony rail. He scores repeatedly with a seamless blend of extreme stunts, computer-generated images and cameras soaring like hawks over treacherous mountain ledges.

While the climbers go higher, the drama gets thinner than the air up there. Vertical Limit becomes one cracking ice shelf after another, with an avalanche or two thrown in for good measure. Characters dutifully carry out whatever quests they were designated upon introduction. A bad guy emerges because, well, he's supposed to in situations like this.

And, despite the dangerous conditions, Campbell straps a canister of nitroglycerin to each climber, changing its combustion potential to whatever is convenient. Nitro can apparently turn a boot into a hand grenade, sizzle like acid and explode with direct sunlight, yet is shock-resistant to the rigors of mountain climbing. At least, for those climbers with star billing.

Chris O'Donnell is top-lined and therefore has the best chance of survival. He plays Peter Garrett, formerly a master climber until the nasty accident that opens the film. Campbell immediately shows his capacity for thrills with a breathtaking mishap that kills Peter's father. Peter quit climbing after that, but sister Annie (Robin Tunney) became one of the world's best.

A few years later, Annie is hired by Texas billionaire Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) to lead an expedition to the top of K-2, the toughest route in the world. It's a public relations stunt for a new airline (a la Richard Branson) that's heading into a dangerous storm. Annie, Elliot and a guide get trapped under the ice, and a rescue party is organized.

Peter happens to be in that neck of the Himalayas. He rounds up a couple of Australian goofballs, a nurse (Izabella Scorupco), a devout Islamic guide (Alexander Siddig) and a craggy hermit (David Carradine, no, wait, that's Scott Glenn looking ratty). The nitro is expected to blow a hole in the ice for an escape, as if the rest of the mountain would ignore the concussion and not turn it into an avalanche.

Forget logic and give up on meaningful dialogue. Vertical Limit exists only for those scenes boiling down to a rope, a precipice and gravity. The opening sequence is a gem, topped only by a scene in which a climber slides down the ice, hooking his pick into the very edge of oblivion, with David Tattersall's camera showing where he could have ended up.

Campbell also uses a helicopter to fine effect, depositing the rescue party higher than thin air safely allows. The wobbly aircraft adds a second level of danger to an already precarious situation, with blades spinning too close for comfort. Possible death by exposure to the elements becomes as crucial to the tension as pitons.

Performances are satisfactory under these conditions, with O'Donnell and Tunney offering supportable spunk. Paxton plays it properly smug, while Glenn mostly glares and grumbles. Siddig stands out because his devout hero is so different from typically negative portrayals of Islamic roles.

The real stars of Vertical Limit are New Zealand peaks subbing for Pakistan, whoever operates the harness wires on a sound stage and digital magicians making it all look real. Only the flesh-and-blood props feel phony.

Vertical Limit

  • Grade: B-
  • Director: Martin Campbell
  • Cast: Chris O'Donnell, Robin Tunney, Bill Paxton, Scott Glenn, Izabella Scorupco, Alexander Siddig
  • Screenplay: Robert King, Terry Hayes
  • Rating: PG-13; violence, profanity
  • Running time: 124 min.

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