[Written for Film.com]
There is no vertical limit on inanity, a principle aptly proved by this unbelievable mountain climbing movie. It begins on sacred cinematic ground, Monument Valley, where the air is defiled by three climbers singing the old Eagles tune “Take It to the Limit.” They are a family: siblings Peter and Annie Garrett (Chris O’Donnell and Robin Tunney) and their father (Stuart Wilson). While hanging from one of the mesas, they are caught in a spectacular fall, and Peter must make a decision that changes their lives.
This sequence establishes Vertical Limit’s operating procedure: Put the characters in as many cliffhangers as can be reasonably created in two hours’ time. Jump ahead a couple of years, as brother and sister, now estranged, bump into each other in the Himalayas. He’s snapping pictures for National Geographic, having given up climbing after the accident; she’s leading a filthy rich daredevil (Bill Paxton) up to the summit of K2, a climb that has more to do with marketing for his companies than with serious mountaineering.
A crevasse opens up, Annie and the billionaire are trapped, and Peter must lead a motley team up the mountain for a desperate rescue effort. Because this is somehow not quite suspenseful enough, let’s strap canteens of nitroglycerin onto the backs of three of the rescuers (in case they need to do some blasting at the top). Now add a grizzled mountain man (Scott Glenn), fond of chanting the Tibetan Book of the Dead in his tent, who wants to murder the billionaire after he rescues him. Avalanches, explosions, and many strained bungee cords follow.
All of which is given a lively treatment by director Martin Campbell, who did a sleek job with The Mask of Zorro. He can’t triumph over the risible aspects of the script, but he does know where to put the camera when someone is hanging from a pickax over a thousand feet of valley. Shooting in New Zealand, Campbell makes the mountains themselves credible, even if the characters are not. O’Donnell is pallid under most circumstances, but especially so when he’s dealing with a love interest in the form of Izabella Scorupco (from Campbell’s GoldenEye). Yes, sexual tension can flourish in an oxygen-deprived atmosphere.
The silliness would be all right if only the movie could stick to a clean line of reaching the goal, like a John Huston film. Instead, things are overloaded with motivations and payoffs, with redemption sought and gained. Every action has some secondary meaning, waiting to be neatly wrapped up. Vertical Limit is so wound up in its own bungee cords, it leaves itself hopelessly tied in knots.