Judge Dennis Prince was rather embarrassed by all this open talk about K-Y until he realized his mistake—they've been saying K2. Dolt.
The Mountain Will Decide.
In 2000, veteran director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, The Mask of Zorro) decided to take on K2, the world's second-highest peak, to deliver a heart pounding, breathtaking adventure of skill, endurance, and personal commitment. The result, Vertical Limit, was generally successful, yet something about this icy adventure left me unable to fully warm up to the situation at hand.
Facts of the Case
Young climber Peter Garrett (Chris O'Donnell, Batman and Robin) is enjoying an ascent up one of the peaks in Utah's Monument Valley with his equally adept sister Annie (Robin Tunney, Hollywoodland) and father Royce (Stuart Wilson, Slow Burn) in tow. Tragedy strikes, and it appears Peter may never climb again. Three years later, though, he's frantically attempting to scale the unforgiving K2 peak in an attempt to rescue Annie, who had agreed to lead millionaire entrepreneur Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton, Tombstone) to the summit for a publicity stunt, yet who now is trapped in a deep crevice following an avalanche. At an elevation of 26,000 feet, the destination is beyond the vertical limit, that being the altitude where the human body perishes in a matter of hours. It's a race against time and the brutal forces of nature as Peter assembles a six-person expedition to rescue Annie before the mountain claims another victim.
At first look, Vertical Limit has all the high-tension action set pieces that director Campbell clearly knows how to orchestrate. What it appears to be missing, though, is a relatable collection of characters. While we'd never expect breakout performances from an action picture of this sort, we still want more to root for over the course of the adventure. Here is where the film struggles: the characters are severely two-dimensional and appear as stock "role players" required for a by-the-numbers action movie formula. Vertical Limit sticks to the formula faithfully which, depending upon your interpretation, can be a good or bad move. Naturally, genre fans will compare this one to the previous dangling-from-a-mountain adventure, Sylvester Stallone's 1993 Cliffhanger. The opening sequence of Vertical Limit adopts the same element of tragedy as did Stallone's picture, immediately tipping us off to what will certainly transpire (and does). With that done, expectations are set that this will be a picture of high-altitude thrills and callous human treachery, the sort that has viewers merrily munching popcorn for the duration. However, unlike its R-rated predecessor, Vertical Limit softens its approach significantly, eliminating the on-screen viciousness and even partially neutering the resident antagonist. Unwittingly, then, the film undermines its own potential as it leaves audiences waiting for the "really good stuff" to begin. In the end, although there have been plenty of harrowing situations and a few character conflicts, it feels the picture never quite reached the heights to which it had aspired. It's not a picture to flatly dislike, yet it's not very memorable, either. It just sort of lies there and chills under its own icy indecision. Despite competent performances by the actors, including a fun turn by Scott Glenn (Firestorm) as a vengeful mountaineering hermit, this PG-13 knock-off never fully delivers on its promises.
Although it's not the best movie you'll see, Vertical Limit is a high achiever in the realm of high definition mastering. New to Blu-ray, the film is visually boosted thanks to a very competent 1080p / MPEG-2 transfer. With the opening aerial sweep of Utah's Monument Valley, it's immediately apparent that detail levels are tuned tightly to deliver a wonderfully textured and realistic image. You'll enjoy intensely delineated surfaces, including actors' faces, clothing, craggy ice walls, and sparkling snowy paths. The colors are represented faithfully and smoothly, though you should expect, by way of the original production design, that many of the sequences will have a dusted and slightly muted look to depict the smothering cold atmospheres. Bright sunlit vistas, however, deliver absolute picture-postcard beauty of the endless snowy peaks that surround the location. Overall, the source print is very clean and free of damage, further heightening the visual quality of this excellent transfer.
In the audio department, Sony delivers an energetic PCM 5.1 Uncompressed Surround track, enabling the soundtrack elements to be discretely ported to the appropriate channels. While this seems an excellent approach, especially for a high adventure picture such as this, the reality is the film's actual sound design undermines the capability of the PCM mix. There are plenty of surround effects and the dialog is well represented throughout the run, yet most of the audio action is kept to the front channels, performing as a bombastic stereo mix but not sharing the load with the somewhat underutilized rear speakers. Don't misunderstand—there are plenty of well placed rear effects, including swooping helicopters and faraway explosions. Yet given this is all done in a swirling snow-peaked setting, the overall soundstage isn't balanced well enough—again, likely by original sound design—to provide the feeling that you're trapped in that crevice alongside the actors on the screen.
As for extras, the majority of the bonus features that were packed into the Standard Definition release are here for your enjoyment. These begin with the highly informative audio commentary in which director Campbell sits down with producer Lloyd Phillips to speak on all aspects of the production. While it's not a witty sort of chat, it's very welcome for the nonstop offering of well-prepared technical and anecdotal content that is genuinely interesting. Next up is an original HBO promotional special, Surviving the Limit, that, at 24 minutes, does a decent job of exploring the behind-the-scenes activity in the making of the film. Sure, it's a bit fluffy and self-congratulatory, just as we might expect, but it's still more informative than many other such "plugs" that HBO has helmed. Then, there's a multi-part documentary, Search and Rescue Tales, subdivided into seven sections that, all tallied, account for 26 additional minutes of on-set material. What is missing, however, is the previously included National Geographic Channel's Quest for K2, a documentary that Campbell and Phillips refer to during their commentary yet which aggravatingly never materializes on this disc. Gone also are the feature film's theatrical trailer and the talent bios.
Vertical Limit is exciting and genuinely action-packed, yet it can't scale the heights that it had set in its sights. It's entertaining if not a bit overlong and, with its PG-13 rating, is a film that most families can enjoy (beware a couple of sudden F-bombs, though). Nowhere near as grisly as Cliffhanger, the film still offers a reasonable level of thrills that is worthy of a look. In this Blu-ray format, the image and audio elements are impressive enough to warrant a purchase, helped along by the inclusion of the majority of the previously-released extra features.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Martin Campbell and Producer Lloyd Phillips
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