No offense to any mountain climbers who may be reading this, but I just don’t understand the sport. There is not enough money in the world that would make me climb up a jagged, deadly cliff and spend days (or even weeks) in the frigid cold, only to climb back down again. I certainly admire the courage of those who attempt such feats, but I’d much rather spend my vacation basking in the warm sun of the Bahamas, drinking margaritas.
So the very idea of watching ‘Vertical Limit’ did not sound like a particularly fun way to spend 119 minutes. A group of climbers, stranded in an avalanche, enduring vast hardships and much pain to save themselves from death? Woo-hoo — get the popcorn ready!
Plotwise, ‘Vertical Limit’ is the kind of movie where you know exactly where it’s headed from the opening scene. Peter Garrett (Chris O’Donnell) and his sister Annie (Robin Tunney) are lifelong climbers, trained by their father Royce (Stuart Wilson). But after an expedition goes horribly awry, Royce and two other climbers are killed, which creates a years-long rift between Peter and Annie. How much do you wanna bet that by the end of ‘Vertical Limit,’ brother and sister will once again scale the mountain, face their fears, and at last make peace with the death of dear old dad?
That’s exactly what happens when two profiteers, Elliot Vaughn and Tom McLaren (Bill Paxton and Nicholas Lea) form a team to confront one of the world’s tallest peaks, the K2. Another devastating accident occurs, leaving Peter and Annie to work together, alongside an eccentric, reclusive mountain man (Scott Glenn) to save the rest of the team before an avalanche wipes the entire expedition right off the mountain.
I will admit that ‘Vertical Limit’ is well made. Perhaps too much so. There is much discussion on this disc’s included supplements about how the movie was the most realistic portrayal of mountain climbing ever seen on screen. And the extensive making-of footage certainly backs up that claim. The filmmakers spent many arduous months shooting in real locations, including what is dubbed as “one of the most dangerous mountains in the world.” Such verisimilitude paid off. The film never looks anything but terrifying, and aside from only some lame green-screen work, the effect is seamless.
Yet as much as I admire the craft of the filmmakers, I simply did not “enjoy” the suspense. ‘Vertical Limit’ is relentless in subjecting its characters to one torturous scene after another. Though it is also an extremely silly film — the familial melodrama is like something out of a Lifetime movie — I still found it hard to be entertained watching nice people dangling over five hundred foot drops while screaming for their lives, or having their limbs bashed about on rocks and ice. I also wonder just how realistic some of the stunts in this film are. A quick perusal of the flick’s IMDB page reveals comments made by real mountain climbers, most of whom laughed at the film’s fictional excesses and outright impossibilities.
Still, I bet ‘Vertical Limit’ will thrill many action fans. I was certainly never bored. Director Martin Campbell (‘Casino Royale,’ the ‘Zorro’ films) wisely focuses on the imminent danger hovering over every scene like a dark cloud, and leaves no moment wanting for maximum effect. The acting is also appropriate to the material, even if none of the actors are able to truly create memorable, three-dimensional characters. But I suppose all of that is besides the point, anyway. If you have a taste for pure cinematic adrenaline (or are just a sadist), you’ll find plenty to get your juices going in ‘Vertical Limit.’