It offers great special effects. It’s graced by exceptional cinematography. It features a pleasant and capable cast. It delivers more than a modicum of suspense — indeed, it boasts one brilliantly cross-cut sequence of two different suspense scenes. Vertical Limit also, unfortunately, contains about five-cents-worth of plot and maybe twelve-cents-worth of dialogue. Anyone who has seen more than 50 movies in his or her life can pretty well be guaranteed of precious little in the way of surprises here. The story line seems cobbled together from about a dozen different movies that were already composed of a string of cliches the last four or five times they were made. Even at that, the resulting script that freezes Vertical Limit on its ascent is almost unbelievably simplistic, while also managing to be remarkably underdeveloped (a last-minute romance between two of the characters comes as a bigger surprise than the film’s innumerable avalanches). In essence, Vertical Limit starts out with one of those plots where a traumatic event changes the course of a character’s life. In Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart developed a fear of heights that had to ultimately be conquered after his partner fell to his death. Here, Peter Garrett (Chris O’Donnell) gives up mountain climbing after he is (understandably) traumatized by having to cut a rope and send his own father plunging to his death in order to save himself and his sister. Vertical Limit then uses this event to set up yet another Hollywood cliche in the strained relationship between Peter and his sister, Annie (Robin Tunney), who (now this is a shock) blames him for their father’s death. All this emotional pandering is the basis for constructing a situation where Peter will have to tackle mountain climbing again. Why? In order to save his sister, when she, a guide (Nicholas Lea) and her evil Texas billionaire boss (Bill Paxton) (although there is certainly a preponderance of evidence to suggest that Texas has more than its share of evil billionaires, don’t they ever come from, say, Iowa?) are the trapped survivors of an avalanche on K2, the second highest mountain in the world. With alarming predictability, a crew of assorted rescue types assemble to assist Peter on his mission. In theory, this is to provide two people each to help haul the survivors down the mountain. I reality, it’s to provide the film with an array of dispensable characters to be blown up or allowed to tumble into the odd chasm that mountains are prone to sport. Essentially, all that comes before leads to the following predictable questions: Will our heroes arrive in time to save the day? Will Peter prove himself to his sister? To what depths can even an evil Texas billionaire sink? Will “poetic justice” triumph, concerning a jaw-droppingly obvious subplot? By the end of the film, will anyone much care? The film actually does have a few merits, however. Director Martin Campbell keeps the whole thing moving fast enough that it’s impossible not to become involved with the individual sequences, even if the final results are far from unexpected. Then too, Vertical Limit seems to work pretty well with younger audiences, who have perhaps seen fewer of these sorts of films, but for most viewers, the film is going to be a long, hard climb.
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