Vertical Limit

Shamelessly playing off natural fears and phobias, “Vertical Limit” is a gripping rescue adventure trapped under an avalanche of clichés. Fortunately, the script has a best friend in director Martin Campbell, who understands the limitations of the written word and works around them to create a film that is exciting and entertaining.

vertical limitCharacter development is as thin as the air above 26,000 feet, known to mountain climbers as the “Vertical Limit.” It’s at this altitude the human body begins to fall apart, unable to sustain life for very long. Only the best of the best are welcome, and even then, most mountains chew them up and spit them out without mercy.

It’s a lousy place to be trapped, so of course that’s where guide Annie Garrett (Robin Tunney) and her team end up when their climb goes bad. Caught in an ice cave atop K2, the team has only one chance for survival. Annie’s brother Peter (Chris O’Donnell), a former climber who hung up his ropes after a tragic climbing accident. Peter’s content being a nature photographer, but since he has unfinished business with Annie, he puts aside his fears to rescue her.

Peter encounters several obstacles in his quest to save his sister. Most of the local climbers refuse to participate, forcing Peter to seek out a reclusive climber named Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn). As Peter assembles the rest of the rescue team, life and death decisions are being made in the cave by Elliott Vaughn (Bill Paxton), the entrepreneur whose quest for fame led to their grave situation.

Thanks to Campbell’s in-your-face action, “Vertical Limit” frequently rises above the pedestrian plot mechanics. Campbell and the special visual effects team create a perilous world where almost anything can happen and does. The script by Robert King (Red Corner) and Terry Hayes (The Road Warrior) is functional, yet relies too heavily on clichés. Most of the characters are as white as snow, with absolutely no shading.

They’re types. O’Donnell’s Peter is the scared son who swore he would never climb again. Tunney’s Annie is the tough sister, trying to become the world’s greatest mountain climber to honor the memory of her father. Paxton is the egocentric billionaire who believes that money can buy his way into and out of anything. Glenn is the crusty hermit with legendary skills who lets a private vendetta guide his motivations.

“Vertical Limit” works because Campbell knows how to put these types through the motions, and what a ride it is. From it’s gripping opening, in which Peter and Annie are forced to make a life altering decision on the side of a mountain, to the explosive finale, “Vertical Limit” delivers the goods. Anyone with a modest fear of heights will find themselves on the edge of their seat.

O’Donnell looks great in a parka, but he wouldn’t have been my first choice for a role like this. Despite the determination that pulsates through his face, O’Donnell failed to make me believe that he was part of this. It didn’t help that his character is called on to participate in some rather silly stunts.

The rest of the cast go through the motions without much effort. Perhaps it was too cold to do anything more than stand around and look interested. Glenn is okay as the mysterious mountain man, while Paxton’s arrogance is way over the top. Tunney has some nice moments, but her speeches suffer from poor writing.

Shot in New Zealand, standing in for K2, and inside sound stages, “Vertical Limit” looks terrific. Solid production values effectively blend fact and fantasy, allowing us to get lost in the action. Despite shallow characters and paint-by-number plotting, “Vertical Limit” still works as an action film. You will see people engaged in some very dangerous situations, and believe most of them.

Director Campbell, who pumped new life into the James Bond franchise with “Goldeneye,” and revived the swashbuckler with “The Mask of Zorro,” does wonders to make all of this matter. With razor sharp editing by Thom Noble and pulse-pounding music by James Newton Howard, Campbell never allows the film to slow down long enough for logic to take its toll.

There’s great beauty in director of photography David Tattersall’s images, a peaceful serenity that serves as a perfect contrast to the carnage that unfolds. Production designer Jon Bunker makes the transitions from outdoor to indoor seamless.

I have a fear of uncontrollable heights. I don’t freak out in airplanes or in elevators, but you might as well shoot me before you force me to dangle from a rope off a 1,000 cliff. Campbell and crew exploit these common fears to create suspense, and do so quite effectively. You may not care about the characters, but you’re right there with them as they face down death.

SNOW JOBGripping Limit buried under avalanche of clichés


Chris O’Donnell, Scott Glenn, Robin Tunney, Bill Paxton, Nicholas Lea. Directed by Martin Campbell. Rated PG-13. 126 Minutes.


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