[Screen It]

(2000) (Chris O'Donnell, Robin Tunney) (PG-13)

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Action/Adventure: A rescue team sets out to save a climbing team that's trapped near the summit of K2 and running out of supplies and time.
Several years after a fatal climbing accident claimed their father's life, Peter Garrett (CHRIS O'DONNELL) and his sister, Annie (ROBIN TUNNEY), have gone their separate ways. He's now a wildlife photographer while she's a mountain guide, and they've never resolved their feelings about that fateful day.

They're reunited at the base camp of K2, the world's second highest peak where Annie and fellow mountain guide, Tom McLaren (NICHOLAS LEA), are to lead egomaniacal and ultra wealthy Texas businessman, Elliot Vaughn (BILL PAXTON), to the summit so that his photo can be taken just as the inaugural flight of his new airline flies overhead.

Despite an approaching weather system that could spell disaster for their effort and lives, Vaughn bullies his team into continuing. An accident and then fatal avalanche, however, puts an end to their expedition and kills everyone but Annie, Tom and Vaughn who now find themselves buried in an icy cave with both supplies and time running out.

Realizing that, Peter scrambles to assemble a rescue team that must ascend the summit after being dropped off part of the way up by Pakistani chopper pilot Major Rasul (TEMUERA MORRISON). Among those volunteering for the rescue effort is Skip Taylor (ROBERT TAYLOR), another expert mountain climber; Kareem Nazir (ALEXANDER SIDDIG), a friend of Peter's who lost a family member in the accident; Malcolm (BEN MENDELSOHN) and Cyril Bench (STEVE LE MARQUAND), two goofball, but seasoned Australian brothers; Monique Aubertine (IZABELLA SCORUPCO) an occasionally surly French-Canadian nurse; and finally Montgomery Wick (SCOTT GLENN), a grizzled mountain climbing veteran whose wife died while on an earlier expedition with Vaughn.

As Peter's team splits up into three twosomes and each carry some highly volatile nitroglycerine they hope to use to free the trapped climbers, they must overcome various difficulties and perilous incidents while trying to reach them before time runs out.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Back in the old days - and I mean the really, really old ones - man didn't need to jump from planes, ride roller coasters or participate in extreme sports to get his juices - not to mention adrenaline - flowing. No, saber-toothed tigers and other carnivorous beasts, worries that your caveman neighbor, Og, might club you over the head for your mate, and the periodic threat of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and other acts of the gods were good enough for that.

With psychiatrists, stress management classes and/or Prozac being thousands of years away, there's little doubt that those poor people's worn out hearts did them in if all of those other things didn't. In today's more sedentary world, stress is still present, but it's far more mental in nature and usually isn't accompanied by any sort of fight or flight physical release.

As a result, certain segments of our population find the need to do things that normally would be considered illogical or just plain dumb, such as running with a bunch of angry bulls down a narrow Pamplona street or climbing mountains that routinely kill people year in and year out. That said, please remember that mountains don't actually kill people (unless they trip, stumble and fall on you), rather sheer stupidity usually takes care of that.

For those without the stamina, means or shortage of brain cells to participate in such events, Hollywood often steps in and offers two-dimensional, virtual representations of such extreme physical peril, and viewers usually rush to the local multiplex to get their relatively safe adrenaline fix of it.

The latest such dealer is director Martin Campbell who previously fixated adrenaline junkies with his addictive offerings, "The Mask of Zorro" and "GoldenEye," both of which were notable for their highly choreographed action sequences and related, cathartic peril.

Now Campbell has a new "drug" on the street and it goes by the name of "Vertical Limit." A product that involves a powdery white substance that's likely to induce a rapid heart beat, shortness of breath and a tendency to sit on the edge of one's seat while clutching the armrests, this offering is most notable for - and most successful when unleashing - its literal cliffhanger moments.

Of course, those who've seen this film's previews may have already had that word come to mind, but not just for those "Omigod, he's gonna slide off the edge of the mountain" moments. Instead, they may be thinking of a certain action film set in the snowy Rockies that went by the name of "Cliffhanger."

The fact that both films open with a taut and harrowing suspense scene involving a mountain, ropes and dangling people - with a catalytic moment that then changes the protagonist's views of mountain climbing - could had had the lawyers at Columbia TriStar Pictures getting out their plagiarism lawsuit forms.

Of course, that studio produced both films, so that point is moot, but those early moments certainly make one question exactly where screenwriters Robert King ("Red Corner," "Speechless") and Terry Hayes ("Payback," "Dead Calm") found the inspiration for their story. Fortunately, for them - and us - the film then veers off into a different direction from that Stallone picture and thus doesn't become another high altitude "Die Hard" with a resourceful hero dispatching the villains.

Instead, the filmmakers here have opted to turn this into an "against the elements and other obstacles" rescue story. When the related action sequences are unfolding and spilling out onto the screen in all of their edge of your seat glory - with two such occurrences even happening in parallel - it's obvious that Campbell knows his way around shooting an action flick.

Such scenes are brilliant here in their "cliffhanger" qualities, even if the inclusion of nitroglycerine canisters - reportedly to be used to blast out the victims although we're never told how that won't kill them or cause further avalanches - seems like just an excuse for some resulting wild pyrotechnics.

Unfortunately, one can't make a film consisting solely of nonstop, back to back action scenes - due to budgetary restrictions and the strong likelihood of simply exhausting the viewer - and when this one goes into straight dramatic mode, it falters quite a bit.

Part of that's due to some motivational problems that easily could have been avoided. With just thirty-six hours to save the victims, no one seems in much of a particular hurry to get to work (I guess they read the script and knew how the story ends), and that robs those dramatic moments of some much needed vitality.

Not helping matters, the plot elements of various characters coming to grips with certain deaths in their pasts don't contain as much emotional resonance as they should, save for a somewhat contrived, but still partially effective discovery late in the film.

As a result, viewers are apt to get a bit impatient during such moments while waiting for the next action sequence to come along. Beyond a long and protracted lull between the opening sequence and anything remotely interesting occurring after it, such "dead spots" thankfully aren't too lengthy or numerous in nature.

The performances are generally okay for a film such as this, although the stunt work generally equals and occasionally exceeds the more dramatic efforts in terms of effectiveness. Returning to the action genre but without the Robin tights or cape, Chris O'Donnell ("The Bachelor," "Cookie's Fortune") is decent but unremarkable as the protagonist, which can also be said about Robin Tunney ("End of Days," "The Craft"), Bill Paxton ("U-571," "Titanic") and Scott Glenn ("Backdraft," "Urban Cowboy").

Ben Mendelsohn ("Sirens," "Quigley Down Under") and Steve Le Marquand ("Two Hands," "Mullet") are present as the film's obligatory comic relief, but they more often than not feel like just that rather than real characters. The rest of the performers and their characters all sort of wash together in a sort of snow-blinded blandness, no doubt due to shallow development and more attention being paid to the action and cliffhanger moments.

Perhaps one day some editor will cleverly assemble scenes from films like this one, the original "Cliffhanger," "The Eiger Sanction" and other such flicks into a greatest hits compilation of action and adventure moments in the mountains. Until then, we'll have to settle for the good moments of each.

While this one is generally easy enough to watch and deserves being seen on the big screen for the wonderful vistas and the many "nearly over the edge" moments, it may play better once on video when viewers will be able to zip through its slower sections when they become too boring. Fabulous at times and rather bland at others, "Vertical Limit" might not reach that lofty status as far as being a great film, but it's good enough to rate as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed December 5, 2000 / Posted December 8, 2000

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