Vertical Limit



US 2000
dir Martin Campbell
scr Robert King, Terry Hayes (story by King)
cin David Tattersall
stars Chris O’Donnell, Bill Paxton, Robin Tunney, Scott Glenn
126 minutes

There are worse ways of passing a couple of hours than sitting through Vertical Limit, particularly for audiences looking for a slice of professional disaster-movie escapism. Director Campbell has hacked out a lucrative niche with this kind of effects-heavy, all-action material – after GoldenEye and The Mask of Zorro – and nobody’s expecting him to break new ground.

In this genre, of course, while the CGI effects must be totally cutting-edge, any other kind of innovation would seem uncomfortably out of place. The more the picture sticks to the standard model – lame, quippy dialogue, endless contrivances, deafening muzak, plausibility-snapping stunts, cliffhanger climaxes, two-dimensional characters, etc – the better, and Vertical Limit sticks very close indeed, though the two-hours-plus running time pushes its luck a little.

After a striking prologue in Monument Valley – obvious shades of Mission Impossible 2 – we jump a few years forward to the main plot, which sees obnoxious billionaire adventurer Paxton organising a publicity-stunt ascent of K2 (“This is a life statement for me,” he intones) which of course goes disastrously wrong. Three of the party – including plucky celebrity climber Annie (Tunney) – find themselves stranded in a cavern near the summit, their lungs slowly failing in the thin Himalayan air. Back at base camp, Annie’s brother Peter (O’Donnell) scrambles a rescue team, desperately turning to unpredictable, enigmatic Montgomery Wick (Glenn). The twist, straight out of Wages of Fear, is that the rescuers must carry volatile nitroglycerine in order to blow the cavern open when, or rather if, they reach the summit.

Blue-eyed O’Donnell is as, as ever, thoroughly square, dependably old-fashioned – just like the movie. With this kind of picture, human participants inevitably play second fiddle to the scenery and the effects – but, as with Cliffhanger‘s hammily villainous John Lithgow, there’s usually room for at least one enjoyably outrageous supporting ‘turn.’ Here it’s Glenn, making the most of his preposterous wild-man-of-the-mountains role, whether shaving off his shaggy beard with a dry blade, keeping a craggily straight face as he spits out his gritty lines, or, best of all, grimly massaging his toeless, frostbitten feet.

6th February, 2001