In a film chock-full of events that range from the unlikely to the physically impossible, probably the most unbelievable moment in “Vertical Limit” is when the main guy and the sort-of main girl kiss. By itself, it doesn’t mean much. But it goes a long way toward reminding us that this movie is made from an action-movie template.
First, we have the Haunted Hero. Peter Garrett (the handsomely bland Chris O’Donnell) and his sister Annie (Robin Tunney) were rock-climbing in Southern Utah a few years ago when an accident resulted in the death of their father. Annie blames Peter for it (she has a point, by the way), and Peter hasn’t climbed since then, immersing himself instead in his job as a National Geographic photographer.
They are reunited at K2, the mountain that is second-highest but hardest-to-climb in the world. He’s there taking pictures of playful wildcats; she’s there to accompany blithe billionaire Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) on a deadlined climb to the top. Vaughn is launching a new airline, and as a publicity stunt, he wants to be at the summit when the inaugural plane flies overhead. He fills the Person Who Treats Mother Nature Lightly role, setting out to the top with little regard for possible bad weather.
Annie is there with him, as are expert climber Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea) and Expendable Characters whose names I forgot. Wouldn’t you know it, the weather turns bad, and more wouldn’t you know it, there’s an avalanche that sends the Expendable Characters to meet their maker(s) and lodges the three characters with names inside a big snow cave.
Back at base camp, Haunted Hero has to face his fears and become Unlikely Hero. They reckon the trio only has 36 hours to live, so they hurriedly set out to find them. They bring Grouchy Old Guy Who Knows Everything (Scott Glenn), a woman named Monique (Izabella Scorupco), a Character of Diversity (he’s Muslim!) and a couple of Australians to act as comic relief. They also bring a lot of nitroglycerin, hoping to use it to blast open the cave when they get there, but instead using it primarily to accidentally blow each other up along the way.
Is this the kind of movie where everyone makes it out safely? Heavens, no. With the shot of Peter and Annie’s dad hitting the ground setting the precedent, we know the death toll will be high; the only question is who will live and who won’t.
As a boiler-plate action movie, “Vertical Limit” is quite good, featuring as it does some splendidly terrifying moments that play on everyone’s natural fear of heights. Director Martin Campbell (“Goldeneye”) knows how to set up a suspenseful action sequence, and the movie has several of them, including an utterly unbelievable but nonetheless compelling back-and-forth between Annie crossing a ledge in the cave and two other characters trying not to fall off a cliff.
We could do without the skullduggery that emerges — you know, the obligatory “it turns out so-and-so is a bad guy, and someone else has a grudge against him” thing. It doesn’t make the suspense any greater; the cliffs and avalanches don’t need any help there, thank you very much. The acting is passable, the dialogue is serviceable and occasionally clever, and darned if it’s not an adrenaline-booster all the way around.
B- (; )