Hold your breath…
Mountain climbing movies offer viewers a visceral thrill without ever having to leave the comfort of their own couch. There's nothing more exciting than watching someone clad in Gore-Tex and climbing gear scaling a mountain while out-maneuvering explosions, avalanches, bad guys or guns. If you're lucky, it's all of the above. The adrenaline pumped Vertical Limit offers up three of these four options, directed by thrill master Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, The Mask Of Zorro). Starring a cast that practically screams "Hey, I'm about two millimeters away from being an A-list star!," including Bill Paxton (Aliens, Titanic), Robin Tunney (The Craft), Chris O'Donnell (Batman Forever), and Scott Glenn (Backdraft), Vertical Limit leaps onto your screen courtesy of Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Peter Garrett (O'Donnell) went through something that no human should ever have to experience. During a climbing trip with his sister Annie (Tunney) and their father (Stuart Wilson), Peter is forced to cut a climbing line to save his and Annie's lives, though killing their father in the process (who told him to cut the rope, knowing it wouldn't hold). Peter and Annie vehemently disagree about this decision, causing them to go their separate ways.
Flash forward a few years later, where Annie is a well-respected climber and Peter is an outdoor photographer. During an expedition to climb K2, Annie, along with multi-millionaire industrialist Elliot Vaughn (Paxton) and their guide, are trapped inside an ice cave by an avalanche. They are in desperate need of medical attention, and if they aren't rescued within 36 hours they'll all be Popsicles. They're able to contact the home base at the bottom of the mountain via Morse code, where Annie's brother Peter hears their plea for help (he is there shooting for National Geographic).
A rescue team is dispatched, led by the grizzled Montgomery Wick (Glenn), a man who lost his wife on K2 to very fishy circumstances. He has his own reasons for leading the rescue, and the team is set loose with their windbreakers, ice picks and cans of nitro strapped to their backs. On par with the magical realm of movies, what most people would think was insanity (i.e., strapping a live and easily detonated nitroglycerin bomb to your backside) is fair game in Hollywood.
The rescue won't be easy. The risks are huge. Let the action begin!
Some movies are like marinating meat. You need to let it soak a while before you can fully appreciate the sensation. I first saw Vertical Limit upon its initial release and thought little of it. It was too easy to compare it to that "other" action adventure mountain climbing movie, Sylvester Stallone's rowdy Cliffhanger. I so enjoyed Cliffhanger that I didn't think any other movie could come close to the thrills and fun that provided.
The truth is, Vertical Limit doesn't best Cliffhanger when it comes to sheer excitement. Cliffhanger, however, was more of an adult movie, filled with scenes of violence and nastiness. Vertical Limit is much softer, though still has that edge to make the movie fun and terrifying at the same time. There are no guns in Vertical Limit, no over-the-top bad guys (like John Lithgow's villain in Cliffhanger), nor any sharp instruments of death. Instead, Vertical Limit goes for mountain climbing action, relying on K2 to provide the thrills (which it does). The set pieces are top notch, the best being a sequence where an avalanche blows away a climber as another dangles off the edge of a cliff by a single pickaxe. I realize that the film is a combination of stunt/camera tricks, computer effects and pyrotechnics, but I was still dazzled with the way the film effortlessly combines these elements into very realistic sequences. After the first half of the film has passed, the action rarely slows down.
The performances are all well wrought, though nothing extra special. The best of the lot is Scott Glenn as Wick, a sourpuss who has personal revenge on his snow covered mind. He's the type of hermit that lives on the side of the mountain, rubbing the stub of his foot with ointment (he lost his toes to frostbite) and reciting Pakistani prayers in his spare time. Chris O'Donnell and Robin Tunney are passable as the Garrett siblings, though their emotional moments border on such honey-soaked sappiness that makes you want to wretch. Tunney expands her eyes in an emotional fever that it gets you wondering if she's Betty Boop's long lost sister. Bill Paxton is effectively shady as Vaughn, a man whose ego is larger than the K2 itself.
This movie also gets my stamp of approval for having the guts to show a character trying to kiss his own backside, then when asked what he's doing responding with: "trying to kiss my ass goodbye." Two thumbs way up!
Vertical Limit is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Since this is as new a film as they come, the picture is, not surprisingly, crisp and clean with only a small amount of edge enhancement spotted. Blacks look solid and dark with colors being vibrant and bright. Vertical Limit has some great photography in it (as does Campbell's previous film No Escape), and the widescreen version only enhances the already excellent camera work. A very nice transfer by Columbia.
Audio includes Dolby Digital 5.1 (as well as 2.0 in French). The mix for Vertical Limit is fantastic, even besting its video portion. All speakers were engaged, taking the viewer and virtually placing them on the mountain with the climbers. During an especially intense helicopter drop off scene, the speakers were all engaged, with the subwoofer rumbling nice and low. Dialogue was clean and clear with effects and music mixed equally!
Vertical Limit offers viewers a hill of extra features, starting with a commentary track by director Martin Campbell and producer Lloyd Phillips. The track tends to be more dry and technical than entertaining, though for fans of the film I'm sure that's a treat. The information is very plentiful, and both Campbell and Phillips sound happy and proud of their end product.
The HBO "Making-Of" Special Surviving Vertical Limit is a 24-minute feature that delves into behind-the-scenes moments and preparations for the film. All the actors had four weeks to learn mountain climbing and get ready for the shoot. Some of the behind-the-scenes information is fairly fun, especially the helicopter drop scene, shot with large mechanical rigs and blue screens. Character motivation, real life risks…it's all covered in Surviving Vertical Limit. A very nice companion piece to the film.
"Search and Rescue Tales" is an interactive feature that includes separate, in-depth viewings into the different areas of production. Each "tale" ranges in length from two minutes to about seven minutes. Each section deals with different topics, such as the sickness that climbers can face, the difficulties of production, the dangers of avalanches, and other areas of interest. Though I think this feature would have fared better if it were just one long section, it's still an interesting look at Vertical Limit and the dangers of mountain climbing.
Next up is "National Geographic Channel's Quest for K2," a 13-minute production about the real-life climbers of K2. Apparently there are a lot of fatalities, with only one out of five climbs ending with everyone coming back alive. This begs the question: what the hell were these people thinking? I realize that with a fulfilling life come great challenges. I believe that to get anywhere in life, you must be willing to make sacrifices and risk it all. However, I'm pretty sure that "all" doesn't mean your only frickin' mortal life. Sheesh. This documentary includes interviews with actual survivors, plus older footage from previous climbs.
Finally there are some typical talent files included, as well as theatrical trailers for Vertical Limit, Charlie's Angels, Cliffhanger, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger. Charlie's Angels and Vertical Limit are in anamorphic widescreen, while Cliffhanger and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger are presented in a full-frame version.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course, when you're watching a movie like Vertical Limit, you have to be prepared to throw your sense of reality right out the window. I was ready and able to suspend my belief that people could survive such brutal conditions…over and over…and over again. My one complaint comes in the form of the whole nitroglycerin thing. I'm able to buy that this whole movie could happen. What I don't buy, however, is that sane people with an IQ of over eight would take liquid death and strap it on their backs to climb up a mountain riddled with winds, avalanches and a blazing sun. Dum-dums.
Then again, I may just be the world's biggest weenie.
For around $20, Vertical Limit is a good buy if you're into action, lots of snow, and people carrying live bombs up an unstable mountain. Though not as adventurous and fun as Cliffhanger, Vertical Limit is still a lot of fun and much more kid friendly. The disc is packed well, the transfer clean, the audio excellent. Grab your mittens and get ready to rock!
Acquitted on all counts. Vertical Limit is a fun ride to the hardest climb in earth!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Martin Campbell and Producer Lloyd Phillips
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