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Nowhere to Go but Up

By Rita Kempley
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)
"Vertical Limit" offers an avalanche of high-altitude heroics, spectacular scenery and more cliffhangers than many an old-fashioned movie serial. Unfortunately the characters are as thin as the air at 26,000 feet, and the story as silly as anyone willing to assault K2 in a punishing blizzard.

That, of course, is exactly what happens when Peter Garrett (Chris O'Donnell) learns that his sister, Annie (Robin Tunney), and two colleagues are trapped in a Himalayan ice cavern. Unless they are reached within 36 hours, the three are sure to die of a watery swelling of the lungs known as pulmonary edema.

Peter, who has been estranged from his sister, hasn't climbed since the two were nearly killed in an accident three years earlier. (That hair-raising mishap serves as the prologue and is the movie's most thrilling sequence.) Driven by the need for redemption as well as filial affection, Peter enlists five other mountaineers in a daring rescue mission. They include Scott Glenn's reclusive mountain man, a pair of scrappy Australian brothers, a good-hearted Sherpa and a French Canadian nurse.

As if the world's most dangerous peak weren't challenge enough, the climbers strap cylinders of liquid nitro to their backs that are ready to go boom at the slightest jiggle. Dynamite would be a more stable method of blasting the cavern open, but this is an action thriller and audiences want more than smothering snowslides and fraying lifelines. They expect, and director Martin Campbell ("GoldenEye") delivers, not one, not two, but five big bangs.

For Campbell and writers Robert King and Terry Hayes, the story is just an excuse for a series of improbable perils. Meanwhile the actors are left dangling in more ways than one. O'Donnell may be the movie's central figure, but he's also its least developed. It's also true that the puppyish player is wrong for the part.

The grizzled Glenn has more to work with: a grudge against the reckless billionaire (Bill Paxton) who financed the sister's fateful climb and willingly endangered the other members of her party for the sake of a publicity stunt to promote his new airline. Tunney ("The Craft") is brave and plucky, but she pales alongside Izabella Scorupco's valiant nurse (through blizzards, avalanches and nitro blasts, not once does her makeup smear).

Scorupco, a former fashion model, may not look like a mountain climber, yet it is her caregiver character who takes a giant step for womankind. She doesn't just break a fingernail, she breaks one of her fingers. . . . But throughout, her manicure is great.

Vertical Limit (126 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for scary situations and strong language.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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