Friday December 8, 2000
A man's face fills the screen. His eyes expand in terror, his mouth opens double-wide, he screams "AVALANCHE" as if the fate of nations hung on the word. You can run, you can hide, but ready or not, "Vertical Limit" is that kind of a movie.
In theory, these high-octane extravaganzas, old-fashioned in form but bristling with up-to-the-minute special-effects technology, should be business as usual for Hollywood. In reality, making a success of high-altitude heroics is something of a lost art. Which is why getting Martin Campbell to do the directing was the right idea.
After a career largely spent doing TV miniseries in Britain, with the occasional feature thrown in, Campbell revealed an unusual gift for revitalizing traditional genre material, making films like the James Bond "GoldenEye" and "The Mask of Zorro" more crisp and exciting than anyone else could manage.
Yet Campbell's strengths are almost offset by flaws that would have hamstrung a less confident and exciting film than "Vertical Limit." The Robert King and Terry Hayes screenplay (inspired in part by the same Mt. Everest tragedy Jon Krakauer detailed in "Into Thin Air") is weighted down with flyweight dialogue and weak characterization, dilemmas that are not helped by problematic casting and lack of a true star performance. Still, for a film with action sequences that can wind us up the way "Vertical Limit" does when the moment is right, an awful lot of trespasses can be forgiven.
Though he's personally afraid of heights, Campbell has turned out nail-biting moments of mountaintop peril that snap, crackle and pop. While a good deal of "Vertical Limit" is undeniably by the numbers, it has become increasingly rare to see those digits whipped into this kind of shape.
The film's thrills start with its prologue introducing the brother-and-sister climbing team of Peter and Annie Garrett (Chris O'Donnell and Robin Tunney) taking their ease on a sheer rock face high above the Utah desert. That sense of calm is illusory, however, for something happens on that Godforsaken cliff that makes the next Peter and Annie meeting awkward and strained.
That would be three years later in Pakistan, at the foot of the Himalayas. Peter is now a National Geographic photographer (an excuse for some nice scenes of snow leopards at play) while sister Annie has progressed into a purposeful climber who's just completed a speedy ascent of the Eiger.
Peter finds himself sharing base camp space with a massive expedition put together by Elliot Vaughn (an effective Bill Paxton), a wealthy Texas entrepreneur with more money than sense who wants to tempt fate by climbing the notoriously temperamental K2 on a deadline as part of a publicity stunt for a new airline he's starting. Sister Annie turns out to be one of the climbers on Elliot's crack team.
It will surprise no one to learn that Elliot and friends get into trouble on the climb, big trouble. It's madness to even think of rescuing them, let alone actually try, but brother Peter, one of several people with unfinished business to settle on the mountain (not the best place for it), can't be dissuaded. Off he goes with a motley crew, including a gorgeous French Canadian medic (Izabella Scorupco) whose makeup stays fresh in gale-force conditions. And Montgomery Wick.
Just as there would be no hope for a rescue attempt without the legendary Wick, the climber's climber, so there would be much less of a film without Scott Glenn's perfectly pitched performance as the mysterious loner who knows more about K2 than any man living or dead.
Glenn not only has the ideal face for the part, as rugged and lined as a contour map of the Texas hill country, but he also completely understands the demands of playing a ghost-like Rip Van Winkle who's part force of nature, part mystical seer. And his sense of the let-'er-rip spirit of the proceedings is impeccable.
Other characters are less successfully handled. The comic-relief characters of a pair of Australian stoner brothers turn out to be neither comic nor a relief. And star O'Donnell, though a capable enough actor, feels miscast. He's too puppyish and lacks the weight of personality to be as forceful as the script demands or to add the charisma that Catherine Zeta-Jones and Pierce Brosnan provided in Campbell's last two films.
Not that "Vertical Limit" lacks the resources to mount a counterattack. These include a pounding score by James Newton Howard, relentless editing by Oscar winner Thom Noble and photography by David Tattersall that makes the film's combination of effects shots and location photography (New Zealand's Mt. Cook sits in for K2) look completely real.
As crisis follows crisis on the mountain, with people falling into crevices and dangling off cliffs left and right, this is one locale whose thrills turn out to be as merciless as its weather.
Vertical Limit, 2000. PG-13, for intense life/death situations and brief strong language. Released by Columbia Pictures. Director Martin Campbell. Producers Lloyd Phillips, Robert King, Martin Campbell. Executive producer Marcia Nasatir. Screenplay Robert King and Terry Hayes. Cinematographer David Tattersall. Editor Thom Noble. Costumes Graciela Mazon. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Jon Bunker. Art directors Kim Sinclair, Jill Cormack, Nick Bassett. Set decorator Bernhard Henrich. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes. Chris O'Donnell as Peter Garrett. Bill Paxton as Elliot Vaughn. Robin Tunney as Annie Garrett. Scott Glenn as Montgomery Wick. Izabella Scorupco as Monique Aubertine.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times