I'm not a high-altitude mountain climber. Heck, I'm not even a rock climber. I climb ladders to clean out my gutters, and that's about it. So I can't (and won't) comment on how accurate a depiction "Vertical Limit" is of mountaineering. I'll leave that for the folks who have scaled up a sheer rock or ice face en route to the top of a snow-covered mountain. But I will say that even as a movie-lover, I found some of the sequences to be as eyebrow-raising as they were hair-raising.
How many times in one film can we see an ice/snow screw or anchor slowly slip in a crevice while people dangle in the balance? In "Vertical Limit," it seems as if there are plenty of literal cliffhanger moments--so many, in fact, that you have to wonder about the weight and stress capacities of the equipment that the climbers use in this action/adventure film by Martin Campbell ("The Mask of Zorro"). When one of the climbers takes a running leap across a chasm with an ice axe in each hand and his leap carries him not straight across (good for you, Martin--who would have believed that?) but much lower down the snow-covered rock wall, he's somehow able to dig both of those ice axes into the wall without losing his grip and falling to his doom. Now, I weigh more than Chris O'Donnell, but if someone lifted me up so I could hang by two ice axes stuck in the side of a mountain, I frankly think that the weight of a human body would be enough to make a grip difficult. Add to that the trajectory of the leap and the gravity of the downward plummet (pun intended) and . . . well, you get my point.
I'm no expert on explosives, either, but when Campbell's climbers transport and handle nitroglycerin, I'm thinking, I thought it was clear, not Flubber-colored green. Then, when the climbers at high altitudes have to keep the unstable compound out of the sun or else it explodes, I wondered about it so much that I took the time to read up on the explosive. It turns out that nitro is has a high freezing point and is actually stabilized by cooling, but thawing it can be used a tricky business. Maybe that's what they were trying to convey, and maybe it's difficult to get that across visually, but episodes like that made me wonder about the factuality of other things related to mountain climbing. Though I said I wouldn't evaluate the accuracy of the film, I do think it's fair to point out that there are more than a few moments where, like any action film, we need to suspend our belief in the laws of nature and reality and just relax and enjoy the ride . . . or, in this case, climb. If you do that, then "Vertical Limit" works well enough as a formula action picture. And the bonus is that the visuals are striking.
Campbell shot background footage in Pakistan, but instead of filming on K2, the most challenging mountain in the world, he had his complete crew and cast flown in daily by helicopters to the Southern Alps of New Zealand, and also filmed the opening sequence in Monument Valley, Utah. Campbell put his actors through a four-week training course so that they would look believable as serious alpine climbers, and to laypersons that will certainly appear to be the case.
O'Donnell ("Grey's Anatomy") and Robin Tunney ("Prison Break") play brother and sister climbers whom we see trying to scale one of Monument Valley's wonders with their father and two other climbers. But the lead climber falls, dislodges a second climber, and soon all of them are being ripped off the rock face, linked together by a safety rope. It's an impressive, harrowing opening which lays out the theme of the film. The two non-relatives fall to their deaths, and dad and the siblings are hanging by one rope, with only a single, shifting anchor keeping them from death. The father shouts at the son, screaming that he needs to cut the rope and let him fall to his death, because otherwise all three climbers will die. Better dad dies to save the kids. Naturally the son is conflicted, especially with the daughter screaming not to listen to dad. But he cuts the rope. Flop. Smush.
Fast-forward three years, and Annie has since become one of the premier alpine climbers, while Peter has given up climbing and instead works as a photographer for National Geographic. But he learns that she's in also in Pakistan and grabs a lift from his courtesy military helicopter to see her. That's when we figure out that she's never quite forgiven him for cutting that rope, and the morality of Peter's dilemma is echoed via dialectic and situation throughout the rest of the film.
Every film needs an unlikable character or villain, and that person turns out to be Texas billionaire climber Elliott Vaughn (Tom Paxton), who assembles a large junket of people at a K2 base camp to launch a five-person climb team that will include himself, the leader, Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea), and Annie. His objective? To make it to the top of K2 so they can wave to the first airplane to fly in his new company, Majestic. Everyone is adoring of the rich guy, including Annie. Well, except for brother Peter and a pair of former alpine climbers who now just seem to hang out at base-camp level and party . . . in the nude, dude. All this, against a backdrop of tensions between India and Pakistan, which requires the local colonel to fire a volley every day "to wake up the Indians."
Needless to say, some of the climbers will make it, and some will not. The survivors are trapped at 25,000 feet inside a deep chasm, and facing death by pulmonary edema if help doesn't arrive soon. Naturally, Peter decides to go on the rescue mission, along with his father's old climbing companion, Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn), those goofy sun-tanning guys, a woman (Isabella Scorupco) who wants to raise money to help the operator of the base camp out of debt, and the cousin of a climber who may or may not be alive.
This one is rated PG-13 for "intense life/death situations and brief strong language," but I should warn parents that there are some incidences that go beyond simple survival. We're not exactly talking Donner party, but damned close.
The 1080p picture looks great with MPEG-2 transfer, presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. There's the slightest bit of grain in some of the shots, but this is the result of atmosphere, not poor source materials or transfer. The colors are bright and appear fully saturated (except in cavernous sequences, which have a blue-tone to them), and the black levels seem just right to produce good clarity and details.
Likewise, the English PCM uncompressed 5.1 audio is clear as mountain air, and there's good distribution of Fx sounds across the speakers. The whoosh of avalanches and crashes of ice pieces are especially effective.
For those who, like myself, were wondering about real-life climbers, it's too bad that the National Geographic special on "Quest for K2" that was included on the DVD isn't also part of this package. What we get is the decent commentary by Campbell and producer Lloyd Phillips, which covers the usual technical and anecdotal bases, as well as a 20-minute HBO promo and "Search and Rescue Tales" that gives us cast and crew talking about how some of the Fx were filmed. Not a bad package of extras, but I personally craved something on real mountain climbers.
While the characters are about as developed as we get in any action film (which is to say, token development at best), there are just enough twists in the plot to make "Vertical Limit" worth the vicarious climb. And it does look great in Blu-ray.