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 Annie and his lives, though killing his 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 wind breakers, 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 pick axe. 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 who's 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!
This newly created Superbit Edition of Vertical Limit is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The original release of this movie looked pretty darn good, and this new Vertical Limit: Superbit edition looks even better (if only slightly so). Any and all imperfections from the previous release have been wiped away. NO edge enhancement, digital artifacting, or shimmer is present during any part of this film. The colors are extremely vibrant and bright while the black levels look crystal clear and well saturated. While there isn't a vast difference between this edition and Columbia's previous effort (unless you own a super snazzy TV set), mad-hatter videophiles will definitely want to pick up this copy for maximum picture quality.
The audio is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround as well as DTS Surround, both in English. Once again, Columbia has done a fantastic job on both of these audio mixes. Vertical Limit is a film that features some rollicking sound effects and a bombastic array of directional effects that will make your couch shiver with excitement. Snow falls around the viewer while whipping winds and nitro explosions show off just what a well mixed soundtrack can do for a home surround sound system. Personally, I didn't find there to be much difference between the DTS soundtrack and the Dolby 5.1 mix—each of these mixes are very thorough and inspiring. Both soundtracks are clear and free of any hiss or excessive distortion. Overall two perfect soundtracks to compliment a very nice video presentation.
Unlike the original DVD release of this film, this new Superbit edition is void of even a single trailer or featurette.
The Rebuttal Witness
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 from 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.
If you're looking to get the best picture and sound quality possible then by all means pick up this new Superbit edition of Vertical Limit. However, I thought the original release was very good, and as a bonus was bustling with extra features. With Columbia's new Superbit Deluxe releases on their way, I can't say that this featureless disc is worth the extra cash, but hey…at least it looks and sounds good.
Vertical Limit: Superbit is free to go for its superior quality, though the worth of this purchase compared to the previous release is questionable.
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