review by Elias Savada, 15 December 2000
dregs of early December are upon us, be they Proof
of Life, Dungeons &
Dragons, or Vertical Limit.
All three will have a hard time fighting for the few box office
dollars likely to be scattered among them, and the holiday shoppers
will be invading the malls and forgoing the cineplexes in the case
of these latest wide releases. In the case of Martin Campbell’s
excruciating rescue effort up the world’s second highest peak, the
distinguished director of The
Mask of Zorro and Goldeneye
has tripped and fallen. Even The Clapper™ can't get him up to his
earlier standards. All that sweeping majestic scenery, terrific
swooping camerawork, and awesome CGI effects are dashed to the rocks
below by acting that left me colder than K2 at 24,000 feet. Brrrrr.
Frozen fingers get pointed, too, at the writers (Terry Hayes and
co-producer Robert King) for not developing the rag-tag characters
beyond stick figures in a script weaker than a ten-day-old teabag.
off a cliff in Monument Valley (shades of Cliffhanger
and Mission: Impossible 2),
the action starts off well enough. Vertical
Limit is pushed as a adrenaline-pumping drama, but instead ends
up a hysterical scream test. Zorro
veteran Stuart Wilson, as experienced climber dad to Nikon-clad
National Geographic photographer Peter and the professionally rugged
Annie Garrett, gets tied up in an unfortunate mountain-climbing
experience as we get a hawk’s-eye view of a fearless family outing
years pass and the nature-loving Peter (Chris O’Donnell)
and his adventurous Sports
Illustrated covergirl sister (Robin Tunney) are reluctantly
reunited at a base camp at the foot of the Himalayans. Their
relationship is lukewarm, their filial baggage heavy, and Annie’s
eyebrows just a tad too perfect. Enter Elliot Vaughan (Bill Paxton)
a "bloody good climber" and ugly American entrepreneur, a
top dollar miscreant -- the friendly Pakistani militia berates the
industrialist for paying dirty U.S. dollars to ferry Texas BBQ to
the remote locale at the expense of preciously needed medical
supplies. Everyone’s aghast that Vaughan is climbing merely as
part of a promotional stunt his new airline, Majestic Air, but that
doesn’t disallow their interest in jumping on board if there’s a
few bucks in it for them. As the race to the top is disastrous;
fickle computers, weather models (that’s Izabella Scorupco as
Monique, a shapely French-Canadian medic), and Frosty the
Snowman’s evil twin conspire to doom the trapped climbers.
Spanning three separate paths up, a motley band of emotional,
spiritual, gnarly, and comic types pair off to save what’s left of
the original team.
Scott Glenn is the mangled recluse of the mountain, a bearded
Rasputin still mourning the death of his wife years earlier under
suspicious circumstances. He bears a deep, simmering grudge against
Vaughn, spends the entire film focusing on some dark revenge, and
spouts moan-inducing dialogue ("Up there you’re not dying.
You’re dead."). For Peter, his partner, one has to wonder if
this is the best sort of attitude to take on such a daring,
foolhardy mission. Along for the ascent are the Australian brothers
Cyril and Malcolm Bench (Steve Le Marquand and Ben Mendelsohn), the
Cheech and Chong comic relief of mountain-climbing. Monique’s
there too, for feminine flavor, as is Alexander Siddig (Dr. Bashir
from Star Trek: Seep Space
Nine) as a devout Muslim porter looking to Allah for guidance.
can only guess that the thin air at such high altitudes affected
Campbell to cross-cut his suspense during the last half of the film
over the various locations: the pulmonary edema and frayed nerves of
Annie, Vaughn, and the remnants of their expedition; the
computerized base camp and its concerned downtrodden denizens; the
three emaciated rescue teams as the rush toward the summit (although
they all manage to take extended pit stops and tell an anecdote or
two). Why they are ferrying unstable canisters of nitroglycerine,
other than to blow something up, is never developed properly. It
just throws another variable, stolen from The
Wages of Fear, into the uphill battle. And a chance for some
pyrotechnic wrangler to blow up some snow-covered rock.
McDonnell appears as wary as his role is unoriginal. Robin Tunney
probably does remember the wind and cold being this bad back in her
hometown Chicago. She’s nominally more effective here than in last
year’s holiday disaster End
of Days. Bill Paxton sneers and sneers again as the ostentatious
doesn’t like to lose -- his heightened self-interest or his life.
breathtaking scenery of the Southern Alps of New Zealand (a suitable
match) could have used a better artist in the writer’s seat and a
director who could have sidestepped the frostbitten clichés that
doom this big-budget enterprise.
Steve Le Marquand