Those of us who can’t help but tweak our casual acrophobia by peering down from a 20 story balcony will find it hard to pass up a movie like Vertical Limit. The opening sequence is pure dizzy heaven. A group of climbers is scaling one of the gorgeous mesas in Moab, Utah, when, out of nowhere, an overstuffed backpack goes tumbling down into the void.
It hits a climber, a rope jerks, a body flies, his rope yanks another climber, and suddenly, after much screaming and falling and scrambling over slippery red rock, we’re left with three people – brother (Chris O’Donnell), sister (Robin Tunney), and father (Stuart Wilson) – dangling from a single rope, which is about to dislodge itself from its measly crevice. At this point, I had a vicarious vertigo peak experience.
The rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that prelude. It’s the story of a rescue mission atop K2, and though the director, Martin Campbell (”The Mask of Zorro”), is out to do nothing more than stage a vivid and shuddery B movie, the tingly suspense of stretching chasm paranoia is mixed in with a fair amount of bombastic overkill. In a sequence that typifies ”Vertical Limit” far more than that jaw dropping opener does, two climbers are hanging by a hook from an icy cliff when a canister of nitroglycerin tumbles and explodes, producing a fireball more eruptive than anything in ”Lethal Weapon 4,” at which point one of the climbers stands atop the cliff, safe and sound just long enough to watch a snowy avalanche surge over him like a tidal wave devouring a minnow. The sequence is as gripping as anything in, say, ”Cliffhanger,” but ”Vertical Limit,” by laying on disasters with a trowel, misses the chance to sweep us up into a more elegant fantasy of primitive mountaintop terror.
The plot has been cobbled together from clichés that it would be polite to call serviceable. Bill Paxton, bearded and smug, is the heartless tycoon whose drive to stage a publicity stunt atop K2 ends up stranding him and two other climbers in a snowed in catacomb. Chris O’Donnell, who really needs to play a bad guy (he’s starting to resemble a cryogenically preserved teen idol), is the rescuer still grappling with his guilt over his father’s death. There is revenge, some good nitro jitters, and way too much flaccid ”who’s going to volunteer for the mission” dialogue. As a stringy haired Zen climber who comes out of isolation to lead the rescue, Scott Glenn isn’t just grizzled, he’s downright grizzly, but he’s the one actor on hand who stands a bit taller than a molehill.