The Vertical Limit is about altitude and tolerable limits of oxygen deprivation. The film, "Vertical Limit" is about that danger as well as many another that lies in wait for those adventurous enough to climb into that extremely hostile environment. With that as a goal, perhaps using the real events in the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster, it shines, specializing in climbing wipeouts in any number of situations. If you ever wondered why most mountain climbing pictures feature the sort of superhumans who never lose their grip on a precarious hand hold, the level of reality achieved here should wipe away such impressions. In this film, dangling precariously off the end of a rope is standard behavior and, whether it's done only to pump up the heartbeat in an action-adventure thriller or to depict the realities of high-level climbing, it's awesome.
The opening sequence has Peter Garrett (Chris O'Donnell), his sister Annie (Robin Tunney) and his Dad, Boyce (Stuart Wilson) climbing a wall in Utah's Monument Valley. The family that scales together stays together. As though to commence the theme of human frailty in such endeavors, anchor rods slip, the family is suspended on one rope that is slipping further under their combined weight and Dad, who is on the bottom, screams to his son to cut him loose so as to save him and his sister. After much agonizing, Peter does it and the siblings survive. But, the familial relationship is cold as ice as a result.
Three years later, Annie is part of a climbing team organized by a Richard Branson-like gazillionaire Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) to ascend K2 when his new airliner is scheduled to pass over it, thus providing a once-in-a-lifetime publicity ploy. The trouble is, the climbing community is a tight-knit group and Vaughn has much dirty laundry from previous mountaineering misadventures, like losing the wife of the venerable climber, Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn) in one episode. He's got this nasty image of profiteering at others' expense.
Which is not to say he's not a valid climber -- it's just that he is prone to throw caution and the good advice of his experts to the wind when his reputation and exploitation goals are at stake and, before you know it, he, Annie and expert, Nicholas Lea (Tom McLaren) are trapped in a crevasse at 24,000 feet, a range very close to the "Vertical Limit".
Brother Peter, now a nature photographer after quitting climbing, appeals to the human instincts of all the climbers at base camp to attempt a very risky rescue. With the help of an offered million bucks by Vaughn's company, he manages to overcome enough fears and better sense to form a team and they assault the high range.
Mishap after mishap keeps the adrenaline flowing in the audience as well as the climbers. The staging, in close-up detail as well as breathtaking wide shots along with technical proficiency keeps the breathe short and involved in each horrowing slip, each dangling adventurer. If there's a fault it's in the repetition and length of the drama. I also some difficulty in believing the aging Wick's superior endurance and strength on the border of human existence. Some belief has to be suspended.
Chris O'Donnell can be credited with a bit more energy than he's shown in previous outings -- somewhat demanded by the subject matter -- but he's a less involving actor than others who might have been cast for this role. Fortunately, the action carries the movie, depending less on the charisma of the lead actor.
New Zealander Martin Campbell directed ("Mask of Zorro", "Golden Eye") from Robert King's story and screenplay.
Estimated cost: $75,000,000. Projected U.S. Boxoffice: $75,000,000.
Rated B, for Breathless.