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K2 (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 01, 1992

Mountain climbers Michael Biehn and Matt Craven are pals. They tackle the most dangerous mountain in the world. You've just read the entire plot of "K2."

Of course, there are other things about this movie produced by locals Hal and Marilyn Weiner. Scaling mountains is tough going. It's exhilarating too. Also, it's impossible to get reliable native help to lug your gear. But essentially, this movie's about the joy of going up, coming down and not much else.

Director Franc Roddam and writer Patrick Meyers (adapting his 1982 play) are snow-blind to human drama. The story is nothing but mundane baggage. Off the slopes, Biehn is a courtroom lawyer and stud. We meet him scaling the outside of an apartment building to reach two giggling, curvaceous women.

Craven is the quieter, safer sort. He's recently married, with a new baby and a wife (Julia Nickson-Soul) who looks askance at his outdoor passion. She gets on him night and day for not giving enough to the family.

"We won't be here when you get back," she warns him.

This stirring stuff makes you grateful for any opportunity not to watch these people at sea level. Luckily, Biehn and Craven are too busy climbing to live their one-dimensional existences. On a climb at Moose's Tooth, Alaska (actually Vancouver's Mount Steinbok), they encounter a group practicing for the Big One: K2.

Biehn has been dreaming of this ascent (second highest in the world) for 10 years. He begs the party (including Patricia Charbonneau and Raymond J. Barry) to take him and Craven. They refuse. An accidental death or two later, however, things conveniently change. Biehn and Craven find themselves en route to Pakistan.

The dramatic baggage never leaves. There's superficial rivalry between Biehn and macho climber (and rival lawyer!) Luca Bercovici. Expedition leader Barry isn't as young as he used to be; and in movies such as this, one good male-bonding turn always demands another. The rarefied histrionics are literally dwarfed, though, by the awesome face of nature. The scenery -- in which various Vancouver-area mountains double up for the real thing -- is the real star.

This is a subject that would have fared better as an IMAX movie, the kind you can savor on the big screen at the National Air and Space Museum. The real joy is in watching from those vertiginous perspectives -- looking all the way dooooooown.

Cinematographer Gabriel Beristain (who filmed Derek Jarman's "Caravaggio") creates some lovely visual moments. Climbers, buried under an avalanche, know help's on the way thanks to a shaft of light that pierces the ceiling of their opaque tent. At night, those lamplit tents, against the dark, driving snow, look like geodesic lanterns.

Had they made this an IMAX documentary, they could have told you facts about K2 -- far more interesting than this drama. The name stands for Karakoram Peak 2, the range survey number bestowed by Lt. T. G. Montgomerie in 1856. The 28,250-foot mountain is not visible from any inhabited place. It may be second to Everest but it's the mother of all mountains in terms of precipitous difficulty. As of 1990, 27 people had died in attempts to climb it. Only 71 have made it to the top.

No, you'll have to marvel instead at the narrative glacial sludge. And, at the strategic, delirious moment when man threatens to conquer nature, you'll have to abide the sound of a solitary rock guitar, the kind you hear in radio commercials for beer.

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