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'Vertical Limit'

Stunts are showy, characters sketchy in 'Vertical Limit'

Friday, December 08, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Critics' ratings, like presidential results, should come with asterisks. As in, "Vertical Limits" deserves four stars for its showy, snowy stunts but two or fewer stars for its story.

'Vertical Limit'

Rating: PG-13 for intense life/death situations, brief strong language.

Starring: Chris O'Donnell, Robin Tunney, Bill Paxton.

Director: Martin Campbell

Web site:

Critic's Call:


The movie opens with a bang and a spectacular climbing accident. A father and his two grown children, Peter (Chris O'Donnell) and Annie (Robin Tunney), are scaling a Utah mesa when some amateurs come tumbling down the side. Annie, Peter and their dad end up dangling from a single rope in that order. The metal clamp that's been wedged into the rock to hold them is pulling loose from the weight of three bodies.

The father, a veteran climber who cares more about his children than himself, instructs Peter to cut the rope -- a move that will send the dad to a certain death. A hysterical Annie tells Peter not to, but the father says if he doesn't, Annie will end up dying, too. "Nobody's gonna blame you," the father says, before Peter engineers his father's death and his sister's (and his own) survival.

These once-close siblings now have a frosty relationship, we learn, when the action advances three years to the lower Himalayas in Pakistan. Peter, a National Geographic photographer, has never climbed again but Annie is a mountain-scaling star who has made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Annie and an expedition leader named Tom (Nicholas Lea) are part of a team assembled by self-centered billionaire Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) to climb K2, at 28,250 feet the second-highest peak in the world. They and others set out, but bad weather swoops in. Tom wants to turn back, Vaughn doesn't and all three climbers end up plunging into a crevasse.

They are, in effect, entombed and initially given up for dead. Peter determines they're alive and assembles a search party and an explosive plan. Time is not on their side, however. Dehydration, altitude sickness and, especially, pulmonary edema may kill the mountaineers before they're ever found.

New Zealand's Mount Cook doubled for K2 in most of the scenes although a second-unit crew did visit the actual K2 base camp and shot footage of the real thing.

A pro might be able to spot the difference, but a movie critic who dislikes heights, cold and snow could not.

Director Martin Campbell ("The Mask of Zorro," "GoldenEye") seems to have spent most of his energy on getting the stunts right and making them look authentic. And they do. One benefit of a mountain movie is you can't always tell whether that's a stuntman buried beneath high-altitude gear or an actor too valuable to risk leaping from an about-to-ditch chopper to an icy ledge.

Where writers Robert King and Terry Hayes fall down are the characters who are painted with a broad brush: a few Pakistanis; burnout Aussie brothers; a French-Canadian nurse who just happens to look like a Bond Girl; and a grizzled reclusive climber (Scott Glenn) with an unspoken grudge. You may ask why no one else knew what that was, inquired or figured it out before now.

"The Perfect Storm" suffered from some of the same shortcomings although these characterizations are even sketchier, the disasters arrive in waves and there is no room for complexities.

O'Donnell, no George Clooney or Mark Wahlberg, is a handsome man who probably will benefit from aging and gaining a few character lines in his face.

If you're in search of the mysteries of the universe, attainable only at the highest points of the planet or the brink of death, look elsewhere.

If it's a good stunt showcase you want, then this is the ticket. And if you plan to see it, see it on the big screen because video will minimize its strengths and maximize its failings.

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