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Take Us to the 'Limit'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2000


    'Vertical Limit' Izabella Scorupco and Chris O'Donnell race against time in the heart-stopping "Vertical Limit." (Columbia Tri-Star)
Oh sure, the characters aren't as three-dimensional as you might have wanted. In fact, they're not even one-dimensional. But in "Vertical Limit," possibly the most suspense-charged mountain-climbing movie ever made, that's the least of your concerns.

Forget what issues these characters nurse in their souls. (In fact, we do learn their various issues and, trust me, it's a good thing they spend more time climbing rocks.) What matters is the nail-biting possibility that they might just be plummeting to their hideous deaths from the rugged face of K2, the second-highest peak in the world. There are other dangers, too, like the TNT explosives a rescue team has to carry, in order to blow three trapped climbers out of an icy tomb.

"Vertical Limit," starring Chris O'Donnell, Bill Paxton and Scott Glenn, is an adrenaline-pumped combination of "Wages of Fear" (Henri Georges-Clouzot's 1952 cult classic about a truck bearing a dangerous nitroglycerine load) and "Cliffhanger." Directed by Martin Campbell (who made "GoldenEye" and "The Mark of Zorro"), it's a roller-coaster experience full of perilous drops, devastating avalanches and volatile bomb explosions.

This isn't about people. It's about not dying.

Don't come late, by the way. The movie starts with a horrifying prelude. Peter Garrett (O'Donnell), his sister, Annie (Robin Tunney), and their father are scaling a butte in Monument Valley when an unforeseen catastrophe, involving other mountaineers, leaves five climbers dangling over the abyss. Peter is forced to make a terrible decision, the results of which hang over the rest of the movie.

A few years later, Peter's a National Geographic photographer. But Annie's still climbing. They bump into each other at a K2 base camp in the Himalayas. He's shooting snow leopards. She's part of a big public relations stunt: climbing with wealthy entrepreneur Elliot Vaughn (Paxton), who wants to get to the top of K2 just in time to greet one of his brand-new commercial airplanes. Prepare to hiss at this guy throughout the movie. He gets worse and worse. Accompanying Vaughn and Annie is master climber Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea) and some Pakistani helpers.

Ignoring dire weather predictions, Vaughn presses the summit team to go all the way. The storm comes. An avalanche follows. The Pakistanis are lost. The Americans plunge into a crevasse and find themselves trapped.

Back at the base camp, Peter rounds up a rescue team full of oddballs: There's craggy, mystical, grumpy Montgomery Wick (Glenn), who could outglare the sun; Monique (Izabella Scorupco), a French-Canadian climber who's more sullen than 10,000 teenagers grounded for a lifetime; two Aussies (Ben Mendelsohn and Steve Le Marquand), who never found anything they couldn't smoke or drink; and Kareem (Alexander Siddig), a Pakistani porter whose cousin was one of the lost.

The rescue mission is a race against the clock. Annie, Vaughn and Tom are stuck at 26,000 feet, where humans can't survive for long. And then there's the explosion factor. Peter and his team opt to carry cannisters of powerful, easily triggered TNT, so they can blow a hole in the snow canopy over the trapped climbers. The slightest jostle or exposure to sunlight, and everyone's mountain chum.

The less said about the characterizations the better. However, it's a blessing to see non-demeaning depictions of Pakistanis and Muslims, including a charming cameo by Indian actor Roshan Seth as a Pakistani colonel.

Mainly, "Vertical Limit," much of it shot on New Zealand mountain ranges, is about cheating nature at its tallest, its coldest and its loneliest. And director Campbell leads a great movie team to evoke that experience. The stunt work, editing and special effects are remarkable. And director of photography David Tattersall (who also shot "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" and "The Green Mile") creates some powerful images, including a heart-stopping, point of view shot (as someone slides down a slope to their possible doom) that vicariously brings the audience to the very edge of the mountain. But don't worry. If you place your feet firmly around the legs of your chair, and grip your partner's arm, you should be able to save yourself.

"Vertical Limit" (PG-13, 124 minutes) – Contains obscenity, sickening deaths and bone fractures – and some hilariously bad character moments.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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