“Cliffhanger” meets “The Wages of Fear” in “Vertical Limit,” a high-altitude thriller that remains exciting as long as it stays on the mountains, which is most of the time. Spiked with a number of breath-shortening action scenes and enough perilous moments for a whole season of old Saturday matinee serials, this brawny suspenser features typically one-dimensional characters but more than fills the bill as roller-coaster-ride entertainment, which translates into muscular holiday B.O. domestically and a significantly larger haul internationally.
Once again proving his skill with straightforward, physical filmmaking (previously demonstrated in “GoldenEye” and “The Mask of Zorro”), director Martin Campbell clearly relishes sequences that demand inventive visual solutions for the staging of intensely dangerous situations. Wasting no time, he delivers one right off the bat, an eight-minute prologue that will put many viewers’ hearts in their throats despite its strong resemblance to the openings of both “Cliffhanger” and “M:I2.”
On the sheer red cliff of a towering butte in Monument Valley, bro and sis Peter and Annie Garrett (Chris O’Donnell, Robin Tunney) are doing some technical climbing with their expert climber dad, Royce (Stuart Wilson). In a horrible accident, they get tangled up with two other mountaineers, leaving five adults dangling from a single rope. The two strangers quickly plummet to their deaths and, after a few moments of gasping indecision, Royce warns that the line won’t hold long and demands that his son cut him loose to have any hope of saving himself and his sister. Faced with this impossible but urgent dilemma and ignoring Annie’s hysterical protests, Peter obeys his father.
Three years later, Peter is a National Geographic lenser photographing (in lovely footage) snow leopards in the Himalayas. In short order, he ends up at a Pakistani military installation, where some very big guns point straight toward India, and then at a K2 base camp, where he has a delicate reunion with Annie. In the intervening period since their father’s death, Peter has abandoned mountaineering, while Annie has become a hotshot climber and Sports Illustrated cover girl whose current gig has her accompanying billionaire entrepreneur Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) on a rapid ascent of K2.
Setting up a luxurious compound that resembles a high-tech Club Med, the arrogantly confident Elliot has surrounded himself with the best team that his limitless money can buy, including expert climber Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea), who is supposed to lead Elliot to the summit of the world’s second-highest peak in time to coincide with a fly-over of a plane from Elliot’s new airline. His commercial motive for the ascent makes the businessman the nominal villain, a status further amplified by the selfish way he treats his colleagues when the crises commence, which Campbell and screenwriters Robert King and Terry Hayes make sure happens sooner rather than later.
At 26,000 feet when severe weather hits, Elliot, Annie and Tom end up inside a deep cavern that shortly becomes sealed by an avalanche. With just 36 hours until his sister and the men will certainly expire, a galvanized Peter takes charge of the rescue attempt, quickly assembling a team of diverse and sometimes strange characters who stand only an outside chance of reaching the reckless climbers.
Crew includes supermodelish medic and climber Monique (Izabella Scorupco, looking even more stunning than she did in her last Campbell pic, “GoldenEye”), upright Pakistani porter Kareem (Alexander Siddig), wild Aussie hippie brothers Cyril and Malcolm Bench (Steve Le Marquand, Ben Mendelsohn) and enigmatic hardcase Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn), a long-ago friend of Peter and Annie’s father who’s been a mountain recluse since his wife died in an incident that gives him a secret personal agenda against Elliot.
Not only does this ill-assorted bunch have to rush up what may be the world’s most perilous mountain, but must do so carrying canisters of nitroglycerin, which will enable the rescuers to blast through to the snow and rock that enshroud the trio. As viewers of “The Wages of Fear” will recall, just the slightest undue jostling or contact will make nitro blow, and the very idea that climbers could imagine carrying the stuff on a rugged ascent is merely the unlikeliest of the story’s numerous hokey elements.
But all the narrative contortions exist to enable Campbell to do what he does best, which is to ratchet up tension and put across scenes of intense peril and imminent death with visceral impact. First of these has a helicopter taking the six hardy souls up as high as it can to a cliffside drop-off at which the climbers, each packing nitro, must jump clear while the chopper lurches dangerously about in the thin air.
This is nothing, however, compared with the next action sequence, which contains what may be the shot of the year: As Cyril slides helplessly down a severe slope, the camera descends at breathtaking speed with him at ground level, then continues way out over a yawning gorge as Cyril just manages to hook his pickax into the ice, leaving him dangling from the edge with only the faintest hope that Monique might be able to rescue him.
That the rescue attempt itself comes at the last possible minute is a given, and the resolutions of certain significant story strands are outfitted with some pat but sweet ironies.
Although a fair amount of the toughest scenes were accomplished with an assist from blue-screen shooting, traveling mattes, models, soundstage work and computerized visual effects, the film has a predominantly real look and feel. Working on outstanding Southern Alps locations in New Zealand that convincingly match mountain vistas caught by Pakistani unit director/lenser Roger J. Vernon in the Himalayas, Campbell and cinematographer David Tattersall keep the camera moving in muscular fashion throughout. Pic has virtually no flab, and action-suspense scenes in particular have been cut to maximum effect.
Perfs are one-note but competent: O’Donnell fairly wreaks boyish determination, the very fit-looking Tunney well embodies feminine grit, Paxton casts deep shadows on the mystique of the self-made man, and Glenn manages to summon simultaneous impressions of Chuck Norris and Jeremiah Johnson as a loner whose face looks as stony as his habitat. Pic is subtly hip to national and ethnic stereotypes in cardboard characters, be they stoners from Oz, an uncompassionate tycoon from Texas or sympathetic Muslims from Pakistan.