Vertical Limit
review by Elias Savada, 15 December 2000

The 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.

Dangling 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 gone awry.

Three 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.

Poor 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.

I 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.

Chris 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 billionaire who doesn’t like to lose -- his heightened self-interest or his life.

The 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.

Directed by:
Martin Campbell

Chris O’Donnell
Bill Paxton
Robin Tunney
Scott Glenn
Izabella Scorupco
Temuera Morrison
Stuart Wilson
Nicholas Lea
Alexander Siddig
Steve Le Marquand
Ben Mendelsohn
Robert Taylor

Written by:
Robert King
Terry Hayes





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