False summit

Melodrama ascends to the death zone.

STOP YOUR GRUMBLING, mountain climbers: Your terrain has now become sufficiently commercialized and media-saturated to be fodder for box office exploitation, just like football, boxing, and stock-car racing. Accordingly, mountaineers who expect strict accuracy in their sport's depiction should skip Vertical Limit and wait for the next IMAX revival of Everest. (Otherwise, quit your complaining and enjoy the stunning vistas of Pakistan's Karakoram range and the New Zealand Alps.) Nevertheless, moviegoers who expect holiday thrills in the first big action movie out this month may find Vertical hasn't taken enough liberties with high-altitude alpinism.

VERTICAL LIMIT

directed by Martin Campbell with Chris O'Donnell, Bill Paxton, and Scott Glenn opens December 8 at Metro, Pacific Place, and other theaters

GoldenEye director Martin Campbell does his best to raise Vertical to the level of a decent Bond picture, but it's hindered by a lack of sex, shootouts, or car chases. The plot is basically lifted from the events of Into Thin Air and Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic 1953 thriller The Wages of Fear, which Vertical glancingly acknowledges. After a prologue that orphans two high-climbing siblings, older brother Peter (Chris O'Donnell) ends up a nature photographer near the K2 base camp where his younger sister (Robin Tunney) is about to assist a brash billionaire client up the world's second highest peak. Things go wrong, so our hero has to go rescue her in traditional Hollywood fashion.

Vertical does its best to skip over all the slow, dull parts of mountaineering (helicopters bypass K2's long approach march) but piles on characters and mini-emergencies into a teetering, generally implausible structure. Base camp is a crowded international village with a laptop in every tent. Peter has his choice of colorful climbers to assist in the rescue effort, including the requisite babe. Then out steps grizzled climber Scott Glenn like the Ancient Mariner to rebuke the billionaire's hubris. "The odds are with us," retorts the tycoon (Bill Paxton), who insists on sticking to his ascent schedule regardless of weather—which any reader of Into Thin Air knows is a mistake. (The '96 Everest disaster is directly referenced, but oddly none of the characters seems to have read the book.)

BIG EXPLOSIONS are the sin qua non of any action film, so Vertical has its six rescuers lug nitroglycerine up the mountain to free three stranded climbers. Toss in your avalanches, heroes dangling from helicopter skids, and regular cliff-hanging scenes and you've got a reasonably entertaining, if corny, movie. Glenn's appearance adds elements of murder mystery and revenge flick to the film, which signals its hypoxic desperation. The ragged script falls back on groaningly bad dialogue to communicate obvious plot points. "People say he's lost his nerve," someone helpfully comments about traumatized Peter (in case audiences were wondering).

Apparently, the kid's got something to prove, and baby blue-eyed Chris O'Donnell is here cast for his dewy sensitivity—unwisely letting Glenn upstage him in the macho department. He and his sis are still trying to please Daddy, with Glenn's character acting as a surrogate father figure. Unlike the mercenary Clint Eastwood in The Eiger Sanction or muscle-bound Stallone in Cliffhanger, O'Donnell's hero doesn't use the mountains so much to prove himself as to preserve his family.

That's why, at such austere white heights, Paxton's selfishness and Glenn's slow-burn anger are more convincing. Climbing isn't a touchy-feely sport any more than it's characterized by fiery red explosions. Yet for mass-audience multiplex mountaineers, Vertical offers closure, hugs, and reconciliations straight from the set of Oprah. After the bogus sentiment of that Grinch movie, however, viewers may question why we're again looking up to the mountaintops for the comforts of home. Isn't that why we head to the hills, after all—to escape from what's easy and reassuring? For all its grunting efforts, Vertical takes us in a different direction.

 
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