Vertical Limit (PG-13)
Sony Pictures Entertainment/Columbia
Cliches abound in director Martin Campbell's (The Mask of Zorro) suspense thriller Vertical Limit. The movie's two brilliantly filmed nail-biting sequences are eclipsed by a Wages of Fear-inspired suspense device involving canisters of nitroglycerine. Instead of upping the stakes of suspense at 26,000 feet on K2, where most of the story takes place, the nitroglycerine becomes a bad running joke along with every other action movie clich that the screenwriters employ to instigate disaster.
While the film's opening sequence, set against a stark rock mountain in Utah, promises a sophisticated thrill-ride, Vertical Limit succumbs to the same hackneyed ideas that weighed down other mountain-climbing movies like Cliffhanger and K2. By the time the fifth nitro-fueled explosion occurs, you may well ask yourself if it was the actors or the audience that the writers were mocking when they wrote the script.
A few years after a climbing accident causes a split between Peter Garrett (Chris O'Donnell) and his sister Annie (Robin Tunney), the two siblings are reunited at the base of K2 in the Himalayas. Peter, who has given up climbing since the accident, works as a nature photographer for National Geographic magazine, while Annie adds to her climbing rsum by attempting to climb K2 with Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton), a selfish corporate millionaire. A quick-moving storm and an avalanche strand Annie, Elliot and their expert guide Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea of television's The X-Files) inside a deep crevasse of snow and ice from which Peter and a small team of experienced mountain climbers attempt to rescue them.
Hollywood movies don't get much more rudimentary than Vertical Limit. Get your protagonist and antagonist up in the same high tree, throw rocks at them, throw boulders at them, and finally let your protagonist off the hook.
Vertical Limit was undoubtedly a very difficult film to shoot, and stands as a technical achievement of sorts. The movie was shot at 10,000 feet above sea level on Mount Cook in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, and does a very convincing job for the most part of placing an audience smack in the middle of cold, high-altitude terrain. Apart from a few obviously fake snowflakes and a jerky computer-generated avalanche scene, Vertical Limit sets up strikingly real mountain elements of glaciers, steep terrain and stormy conditions.
But all of the well-observed details in the world can't redeem Vertical Limit for its penchant for explosions. I dare say that if the screenwriters had done away with any and all explosions (i.e. no nitroglycerine), it would have improved the movie by 50 percent. It still wouldn't get rid of dumb stock subplot characters, like the French- Canadian bimbo Monique (Izabella Scorupco) or the hermit-man, Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn), but at least there wouldn't be so much flag-waving announcing: action movie in progress.
If you like to get beat on the head with action, Vertical Limit doesn't know when or why to quit.