There have been plenty of pictures about mountain-climbing over the years; the subject lends itself to escapist melodrama, allowing for lots of white-knuckle action sequences involving narrow escapes and avalanches. Until now the peak of the genre was certainly 1993’s “Cliffhanger,” one of Sylvester Stallone’s last big successes. That “Die Hard” on the cliffs had its musclebound hero play a cat-and-mouse game with a bevy of villains led by lip-smacking John Lithgow; the result was ludicrous, to be sure, but thanks to Renny Harlin’s skillful helming, it was also exciting in a thoroughly nonsensical way. The stakes are now raised by Martin Campbell’s new effort, which aims to do for the genre what “Twister” and “The Perfect Storm” did for movies about bad weather. “Vertical Limit” delivers striking special effects involving cracking ice, brutal winds, collapsing snowdrifts and falling bodies. The F/X team have done their job well, and if that’s enough for you, you should be content.
Unfortunately, a story’s required to go along with all the impressive settings and energetic stunts, and there the picture falls short. The screenplay is obviously inspired by the disastrous 1996 Everest expedition recounted in several books (most notably Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” which was itself the basis for a mediocre telefilm in 1997), but the picture is an entirely fictional construct about a similarly-botched trek on the equally fearsome K2, gussied up with all sorts of physical derring-do and boasting lots of juvenile motivations.
The opening sequence, depicting a terrible accident involving rock-scalers on a peak in the American southwest, starts things on a high note: it’s a harrowing, vertiginous few minutes, and to tell the truth the rest of the picture never quite manages to measure up to it, despite the best efforts of the effects team. The narrative then jumps forward several years to the Pakistani side of the Himalayas, where an attempt to scale K2 is being launched by I-always-get-what-I-want billionaire Elliot Vaughan (Bill Paxton). His team includes expert climber Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea, of “X-Files” fame) and beauteous Annie Garrett (Robin Tunney). But they fail to retreat when a storm approaches, and wind up trapped far below the surface in an ice cave, freezing and breathing with increasing difficulty. Annie’s estranged brother Peter (Chris O’Donnell), on the site courtesy of National Geographic, plans an emergency rescue operation involving some highly combustible nitroglycerin canisters and an array of stock characters: a grizzled veteran named Wick (Scott Glenn), who’s been searching the peaks indefatigably for the body of his long-lost wife; a pious Muslim (Alexander Siddig, Dr. Bashir on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”); a well-preserved French blonde (Izabella Scorupco); and two raunchy, devil-may-care Australian brothers (Steve Le Marquand and Ben Mendelssohn). What follows, naturally enough, is a cascade of action set-pieces as the climbers wend their way toward the summit: explosions, avalanches, near-falls and other mishaps pile atop one another in such profusion that it will take a great deal of self-control for a viewer to sit through them without snorting derisively at the accumulating absurdity of it all. (The only real question in this, as in a slasher flick, is who’s going to bite the bullet next, and how.) Periodically we return to the ice cave, where Annie develops a suspicious cough and Vaughn increasingly shows his true colors. Will Peter manage to rescue his sister? Will Wick find his beloved’s corpse? Will Elliot be able to save his rotten hide once again? And, most importantly, how will the survivors manage to get the wounded back down the mountain should they happen to locate them?
Well, actually the last question is passed over in silence (a quick cut to a hospital tent suffices), but all the others are answered in ways that–despite the awesome visual beauty of the locale and the ingenuity of the scripters, director and effects designers–become increasingly preposterous and curiously tedious as the picture unspools. The makers obviously want to ratchet up the tension progressively over the course of the two-hour running time, but they don’t succeed in maintaining the crescendo. A big action moment will be followed by a long monotonous patch before another set-piece occurs to rouse us again, with the result being rather like a roller-coaster ride with too few peaks and too many valleys.
The cast isn’t terribly strong, either. O’Donnell plays the same boyish, earnest, callow fellow he’s been doing for years, and the gee-whiz persona is becoming more than a little tiresome. Tunney is winsome but, with her petite form, not physically convincing as a champion climber, while Glenn plays Wick with such overripe, stone-faced seriousness that he’s almost laughable. (The modern touchstone for this sort of character part is Robert Shaw’s Quint in “Jaws,” and Glenn entirely misses the sense of crazy menace that the British star so cannily conveyed.) Paxton is surprisingly pallid as the villainous Vaughn, but Le Marquand and Mendelssohn balance the equation by going hysterically overboard as the Aussie siblings. The remainder of the cast is at best serviceable.
To get much pleasure out of “Vertical Limit,” you have to look past the limitations of the actors, set aside the contrivances of the plot, ignore the lameness of most of the dialogue, and simply concentrate on the splendor of the setting and the efficiency of the direction and editing in the action sequences. If you can do that, you should find the picture a proficient enough by-the-numbers nail-biter, but it certainly doesn’t scale any cinematic heights.