Vertical Limit (2000)

D: Martin Campbell
S: Chris O'Donnell, Robin Tunney, Bill Paxton

Routine but entertaining action flick capably helmed by Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, The Mask of Zorro). When millionaire adventurer Bill Paxton (Twister) makes a bid to climb K2 (the world's most dangerous mountain) as a publicity stunt, brother and sister team Chris O'Donnell (Batman and Robin) and Robin Tunney become involved. They share an awkward past, but their sibling bonds are strong. When Tunney becomes trapped in a crevice, O'Donnell mounts a rescue with the help of rugged veteran weirdo Scott Glenn (The Right Stuff) and various others.

It hasn't been all that long since Cliffhanger. In fact Renny Harlin's Stallone-starring mountain film has only recently found its way to DVD, which may help to maintain the illusion that the genre has an identity of its own in the United States. It doesn't: not really. In pre-war Germany the mountain film was as prominent and as well-evolved a genre as the western was in the United States, replete with its stars and stock directors working on scenarios the public would be familiar with and enjoy for the minor variants as much as for the overall excitement provided by tales of derring do on the cliff-face. Vertical Limit has been put together with a grasp of the logistics of contemporary mountaineering and enough professional attention to detail to make it convincing within its own frames of reference. But it's still a bogstandard action film, as was Cliffhanger, replete with the basic character motivations and dynamics which have sustained this type of film since the western itself went into decline.

The story is too bland to be of interest in itself, but there are colourful wrinkles. Thematically the film tediously re-enacts the cathartic paternal drama central to the mythology of American individualism (and the action genre) as O'Donnell tries to live up to and/or replace his father (while making up for his guilt, yadda yadda). It attempts to find space for female self-determination while it is at it, but there is no serious commitment to the endeavour. It is the variety in action and sub-plot which sustains involvement. As the rescue attempt gets underway, the film lurches into territory so brilliantly charted by The Wages of Fear as the climbers are forced to carry containers of nitroglycerine on their backs. There is an undeniable giddy thrill in waiting for the bombs to go off and trying to ascertain who is going to die in what order. The script even manages to find inventive ways to go about the execution of the subsidiary characters, although to be fair it is not as fetishistic about is as Final Destination was. The incorporation of semi-mystic lone-gunfighter-like Glenn is almost campy, and would be if the actor's performance hadn't been quite so solemn. It is fun to watch though, and he is sincere enough to hold it together. It is also fun to watch Paxton do a sort of variant on Richard Branson, and gradually go from annoying capitalist to evil villain. I would hesitate to go so far as to say there is psychology in the characterisation, but there is a degree of consistency in the portrayal which makes it work. Star Trek fans will feel kind of sorry for Alexander Siddig (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) in a rather bland role as a Pakistani climber you just know isn't going to make it.

In general, Campbell is able to mount an action scene, and the film is loaded with moments of jeopardy and suspense capped with big explosions, avalanches, and other assorted natural and artificial damage-enducing events. The writers have found enough equipment and landscape with which to stage a variety of spectacles, and the film is perfect fodder for undemanding video renters who don't want to concentrate much. There really is very little substance to it though, and without the fascination of seeing James Bond come back to life or the heart and history of Zorro to draw upon, Campbell is really just pushing buttons, albeit very well. The film does what you expect it to do, and though it doesn't do so with great style or even great energy, it'll keep you amused if you're of a mind to derive amusement from this type of hokum.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.

Note: The Region 2 DVD comes with quite a few features, including the usual making of documentary and several 'featurettes', some of which are actually quite interesting on the background to climbing K2 for real. The disc also includes a National Geographic channel special on K2 which is altogether too jingoistic to serve well as information. The real value of the features though is that they do bring home that climbing this mountain is not very much fun at all, and hopefully it will give adolescent enthusiasts a moment's pause before they start making for Pakistan.