Goddammit, it takes a long time to die on a snowy mountain. And this movie reflects that rather well.
Despite an opening that’s very clearly set in a studio, there are some later scenes of the Himalayas that just might make audiences understand what it is that makes westerners repeatedly spend the GDPs of small countries – and risk their and others’ lives – to get to the tops of those mountains. It’s got to be this: the spectacular scenery, that frontier feeling, and the crisp quietness of being pretty much on top of the world. But there aren’t quite enough of these scenes to be sure … Could it be (gasp!) an egotistical endeavor as well?
The film begins three years earlier, when a climb goes tragically wrong, leaving Annie (Robin Tunney), Peter (Chris O’Donnell) and their father dangling on a single rope against a cliff face – in that order. Their father demands that Peter cut him off, so he does, thereby probably saving their lives.
Cut to the present, where the two siblings hardly speak because Annie thinks Peter made the wrong decision. Peter, now a National Geographic photographer, hasn’t climbed since the accident, but (good girl) Annie has become one of the world’s top climbers. She’s been employed to make a documentary about entrepreneur (bad boy) Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) scaling to the top of K2, the tallest mountain in the world after Everest, but considered by many to be a more technically difficult climb. Circumstances just happen to lead to Peter being around for the beginning of the ascent.
Vaughn’s climb is part of a marketing campaign, with the launch of his new airline company to culminate with the climbers waving to the company’s plane as it makes its inaugural flight over the summit. (Never mind those warring Pakistanis and Indians shooting rockets below.) So, of course, the weather closes in, experienced leader Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea) wants to turn back, but Vaughn insists on continuing. ("Fuck you!" he screams eloquently at the mountain.) And a few people get killed, while Vaughn, Annie and McClaren get trapped.
Peter is determined to rescue Annie, assembling a rescue crew of six, plus Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn), a wise old mountaineer who’s seen it all before and lost his wife up there (on Vaughn’s previous attempt to get to the top of K2, it turns out). It’s a race against the clock, as the three will soon succumb to pulmonary edema (but like I said, this takes a while – a long while).
At this stage, director Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro, Goldeneye) must have wondered how to get some explosions happening. How, indeed? Nitroglycerin, of course, courtesy of the obliging Pakistanis. Not only will it help blow up wherever it is Annie and gang are trapped, it will let the climbers have one more thing to worry about on their way up. For nitroglycerin is very explosive, and unstable when in the sun, to boot.
While some of the action scenes are breathtaking – the avalanches in particular are wonderful – many of the scenes showing things going wrong are jumbled and unclear. Call me bloodthirsty, but I want to know how it is these climbers actually fall to their premature deaths.
Vertical Limit’s main downfall, however, is its weak script, along with its cliched characters who get very little chance to say anything much. Wick is nothing but a caricature, and when he tells Peter that "You were right to cut the rope" you know the script can’t possibly stoop any lower.
There are a couple of good one-liners, mostly by the Australian characters (Steve Le Marquand and Ben Mendelsohn) and the Pakistanis, who are busy blowing up the nearby Indians but are still drinking their tea – "We might be at war with them, but there’s no point in going too far," says one. But one-liners don’t sustain an action film.
Some of these climbers should have thought twice about what they were doing up the mountainside to begin with; and audiences watching this film, certainly, may reconsider why they are sitting in the cinema watching them.