"K2" keeps it simple. A formidable mountain, howling winds and blinding snows, lionhearted climbers who know nothing of fear. Even as you're watching it you can imagine the ad campaign this might have inspired once upon a time: "Six Against the Snows! An Avalanche of Emotions! The Wind Was Cold . . . But the Women Were Warm!"
In truth, "K2" (selected theaters, rated R for language) is something of a throwback, but a very sure-handed one. Once a cerebral two-character theater piece by Patrick Meyers, it has been adroitly turned inside out and transformed into an adventure film whose main asset is thrills and (quite literally) chills. Man-against-nature epics are hardly fashionable anymore, but director Franc Roddam shows how much life there is in the old dog yet.
Roddam, a former documentary filmmaker whose first two pictures, "Quadrophenia" and "The Lords of Discipline," made a vivid impression, certainly appreciates the value of having an extraordinary physical setting. And though "K2" inevitably condescends to a certain amount of male bonding blather about sacrifice, selfishness and Why We Climb (courtesy of playwright Meyers and co-screenwriter Scott Roberts), the director is savvy enough not to let that get in the way of some genuinely spectacular and gut-clenching mountaineering footage.
Before we so much as catch a glimpse of a mountain, however, we must meet our heroes, two young Americans who, it will come as a surprise to no one, manage to be the closest of friends without having a blessed thing in common. Except climbing.
Taylor ("The Terminator's" Michael Biehn) is a self-centered, devil-may-care attorney, brash, cocky, classically handsome and someone who is, best buddy Harold admiringly says, "too dumb to let reality stand in the way of success."
Harold (Matt Craven), naturally, is the cautious belt-and-suspenders type, a professor and deep-thinking scientific researcher. Happily married and a new father (the philandering Taylor, by convenient contrast, feels that love is "way overpriced"), Harold's only flaw is that he has this passion for arduous, time-consuming climbs with his pal, expeditions that put a considerable strain on family life.
On one such trip, the guys run into a tight team of top-of-the-line climbers, led by "the Phillip Claiborne," a mountaineer of such sterling repute that Taylor knows at once that whatever future assault these folks are training for, he not only just has to go, he also has to drag Harold, who he considers terminally henpecked, along with him.
The group's destination is supposed to be a big secret, but the film's title freely gives it away. For K2 (the mountain not the movie) is the stuff of legends, the second tallest peak on Earth and considered the toughest in the world to climb. Located in such a remote corner of northern Pakistan that no locals got close enough to give it a neighborly name, K2 at last count has claimed a sobering 27 would-be climbers as victims.
Naturally, circumstances conspire to allow Harold and Taylor to make the team, but once the gang gets to Pakistan and closes in on the mountain, problems have a way of cropping up. Trouble with porters, treacherous slopes, tricky weather all materialize at predictable points, as does that biggest bugaboo of all, tension between the climbers. "Anything can happen up here, anything," Taylor announces with considerable drama. "Don't rely on anyone but yourself."
These kinds of preordained difficulties are easily ignored, however, in the undeniable excitement of the climbing footage. In their gaudy, electric-pastel outfits and gear, the mountaineers make an undeniably colorful sight strung out against the pristine snows, but this team manages to do more than merely look good.
Though it was clearly too tough to even think about shooting at the real K2, British Columbia's Mt. Waddington, where 25-degree-below-zero cold tended to freeze the camera's eyepiece, was substituted with no noticeable loss of verisimilitude. And even though stuntmen doubled the principles on the riskier treks, the fact that everyone took climbing lessons before the shooting added to "K2's" noticeable feeling of reality.
Helped by Gabriel Beristain's crisp, arresting photography, an energizing score by Chaz Jankel and acting that is more low-key than is usual in this kind of film, Roddam has turned the scenes on the mountain into a pleasantly hair-raising experience. Having carefully hooked you in, "K2" proceeds to play hard but fair, tightening the noose again and again. Who will live and who will die on the killer mountain? Wouldn't you just like to know?
Michael Biehn: Taylor Brooks
Matt Craven: Harold Jamison
Raymond J. Barry: Phillip Claiborne
Luca Bercovici: Dallas Woolf
Julia Nickson-Soul: Cindy Jamison
Patricia Charbonneau: Jacki Metcalfe
A Trans Pacific Films production in association with Miramax Films, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Franc Roddam. Producers Jonathan Taplin, Marilyn Weiner, Tim Van Rellim. Executive producers Melvin J. Estrin, Hal Weiner. Screenplay Patrick Meyers and Scott Roberts, from the play by Patrick Meyers. Cinematographer Gabriel Beristain. Editor Sean Barton. Costumes Kathryn Morrison. Music Chaz Jankel. Production design Andrew Sanders. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (language).