Screenplay : Robert King and Terry Hayes (story by Robert King)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Chris O'Donnell (Peter Garrett), Bill Paxton (Elliot Vaughn), Robin Tunney (Annie Garrett), Nicholas Lea (Tom McLaren), Alexander Siddig (Kareem), Scott Glenn (Montgomery Wick), Izabella Scorupco (Monique Aubertine)
Vertical Limit establishes the stakes of its dangerous game in the opening sequence, which makes abundantly clear that rock climbing, despite the high-tech equipment and experienced enthusiasts, is a deadly hobby that, in a heartbeat, can lead to tragedy.
The film begins with a harrowing scene that, even if you never were before, will make you afraid of heights. Staged in Monument Valley, Utah, it depicts with breathtaking terror a rock-climbing expedition that goes suddenly wrong in every conceivable way. Anchors pull away from the flat rock face, ropes swing perilously loose, and climbers plummet to their death below. The sequence ends with Peter Garrett (Chris O1Donnell), his younger sister, Annie (Robin Tunney), and their beloved father (Stuart Wilson) hanging from a single rope that, with only one anchor in the rock, may not hold their combined weight. When the father, who is at the end of the line, asks Peter to cut the rope in order to save himself and his sister, Peter must make a decision that will haunt him and Annie and drive them apart.
Fast forward three years, and Peter is a photographer for National Geographic who has not been able to bring himself to climb since that day in Utah. Annie, on the other hand, has dealt with her demons by facing them head-on in route to becoming one of the world's preeminent rock climbers.
She agrees to take a flamboyant Texas billionaire named Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) to the top of K-2, the Himalayan mountain that is considered the most difficult climb in the world. Unexpected weather closes in on them, and most of their expedition is killed in an avalanche. Annie, Elliot, and Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea), the expedition's leader, are trapped in a deep crevasse that is covered over by the avalanche. They have less than 48 hours to live before they are killed by the cold, dehydration, and lack of oxygen. With the unpredictable weather and their position high on the mountain, it seems that they are destined for death.
Thus, the story in Vertical Limit is first and foremost a race against time. Peter, who happens to be at the K-2 base camp when Annie and the others are trapped by the sudden storm, has to get together a group of climbers who are willing to risk their own deaths for the slim chance that they can save the other climbers. With less than 22 hours to go, Peter and five others begin a speed ascent of the mountain in a suicidal race against time and the elements. And, just to ensure maximum danger, they are carrying with them three containers of nitroglycerin to blast open the crevasse in which the other climbers are trapped. Echoing Henri-Georges Clouzot's superior Wages of Fear (1953), the treacherous climb is made all the more dangerous because any sudden jarring movements, impact, or sudden changes in temperature will result in an enormous explosion.
Director Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro, GoldenEye) makes the most of the race-against-time scenario cooked up by screenwriters Robert King (Cutthroat Island) and Terry Hayes (Payback). Using a combination of location shooting on New Zealand's Mount Cook and extensive and convincing sets extended by digital imagery, he stages half a dozen nail-biting sequences that put the rescue climbers in every conceivable high-altitude danger.
In one scene, a climber is hanging by an ice axe from the edge of a snow mass that is constantly threatening to fall off the side of the mountain. In another scene, the climbers realize that having the nitroglycerin exposed to the sun risks it exploding, and they must rush to get it in the shade to cool it off (why they weren't informed of this earlier is something of a mystery). And, because the opening sequence is so memorably terrifying, it is of little surprise that the climax replays the sequence atop K-2 and forces another character to make a similar decision.
Vertical Limit works well in just about every conceivable way. The plot is generally ludicrous and the emotional investments are unashamedly melodramatic. Still, because everything is slightly over the top, it all functions together. It makes the most of the strained, but intense relationship between Peter and Annie, as well as the selfish survival tactics of Elliott Vaughn, who would rather sacrifice his companions than risk his own death. Scott Glenn has an amusing supporting role as Montgomery Wick, an eccentric old mountain climber who lost his wife on K-2 five years earlier and has been searching for her body ever since. He agrees to join Peter's mission, and wouldn't you know he has ulterior motives that involve revenge for his wife's death.
There is little subtlety in either the conception or execution of Vertical Limit, but that's the point. It is engineered in every moment to keep you throttled on the edge of your seat, tense with acrophobic queasiness. Campbell stages each sequence to emphasize height and depth--lots of overhead shots looking down at climbers with a seemingly infinite amount of space between them and the distant ground below--which makes clear that the characters are always on the brink of falling to their demise. The movie is structured so bluntly and it establishes so effectively what is at stake at every moment that you never stop to think that so many people are dying on the mountain to save so few. It's the action that counts, and it rarely lets up for a moment. Silly? Yes. But also quite entertaining.
©2000 James Kendrick