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"Vertical Limit" (2000) Movie Review

Updated on May 23, 2020
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I've been a film buff since childhood, and I love writing about and reviewing my favorites.

Theatrical poster
Theatrical poster | Source


Directed by: Martin Campbell

Starring: Chris O'Donnell, Bill Paxton, Robin Tunney, Scott Glenn


2000's mountain-climbing action saga Vertical Limit looked like a cool bargain-bin pick. It features an impressive cast of capable character actors like Chris O'Donnell, Bill Paxton, Scott Glenn, and Robin Tunney, and it was directed by Martin Campbell, whose resume includes a couple of James Bond films.

Despite its promising pedigree, Vertical Limit was a formulaic flick that wastes no time dutifully lining up every action-movie cliché under the sun and then knocking 'em down one by one. This is one of those movies which telegraphs all of its later events from a mile away. I had pegged how the whole film would play out within the first fifteen minutes!


Ice, Ice, Baby!

O'Donnell and Tunney portray Peter and Annie Garrett, a pair of sibling mountain climbers. In the film's opening scene, they're scaling a massive rock formation in the American Southwest with their legendary-climber father Royce (Stuart Wilson). Within moments, something goes horribly wrong and all three are hanging precariously from a single rope above a massive chasm. Dad does the noble-but-stupid thing and orders Peter to cut him loose, saying that there's no reason for all three of them to die. Peter tearfully does the deed, thereby saving himself and Annie. When we rejoin the Garrett siblings three years later, Annie has gone on to become a world famous climbing guide but Peter has given up the sport and is now a photographer for National Geographic. Peter and Annie haven't spoken much since the tragedy, as Annie has not forgiven Peter for cutting the rope on that fateful day.

Peter happens to be in Pakistan photographing snow leopards when he gets word that Annie is also in the area. She's part of a team led by a Richard Branson-type millionaire adventurer named Elliott Vaughn (Paxton), who's preparing to tackle the infamous killer mountain "K2" as a publicity stunt to promote his new airline venture. Peter visits K2's base camp and after a polite-but-tense reunion with Annie, meets the rest of the diverse group of eccentrics who hang out in the "tent city" at the foot of the mountain, including Cyril and Malcolm (Steve Le Marquand and Ben Mendelsohn), a pair of dim-witted, Australian party animal brothers; Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn), a grizzled old climber who lost his wife on a previous expedition "up there;" and the lovely Monique (Isabella Scorupco), who is tired of life in the high altitudes and would like nothing better than to get back to the "real world." After a cocktail party and a rah-rah speech from Paxton, the Vaughn team starts up the mountain and naturally it doesn't take long before disaster strikes, as the team falls through packed ice into a mountainside crevice, which is then promptly covered by an avalanche (ouch!) leaving only three survivors - Vaughn, Annie, and badly-injured fellow guide Tom (Nicholas Lea). When word of the accident gets back to base camp, authorities estimate that they've only got 36 hours before the weather turns bad and the Vaughn party become human Popsicles. It doesn't take a genius to guess who's going to mount up for the risky-as-hell rescue mission, or to predict that all of the quirky, Misfit Toys characters from base camp will gladly volunteer to put their lives on the line and aid Peter on his suicidal trip up the mountain.

There's supposed to be an Earth shattering KABOOM!"

Peter and his team split up into three pairs, each taking a different route up the mountain. In what seems to me to be the most ludicrous part of the plan, each team is carrying a rickety canister of nitroglycerin (!), intending to use it to blast away the ice and snow covering the trapped climbers. Mind you, I'm not an expert in mountain rescue techniques, and I realize that watching films like these requires a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief, but still, I'd imagine that a rescue team in the real world would choose to utilize something a little more stable, like C-4 plastic explosive. In other words, the nitro merely feels a convenient plot device so the team members can each have numerous "WOW, that was close! We almost dropped/spilled/jostled the highly sensitive explosive!" scenes as they make their way to the rescue site.

Meanwhile, Annie and Tom are beginning to suffer the effects of oxygen deprivation and exposure to the cold, while Vaughn begins to show his true colors, i.e. that he will do whatever it takes to get off the mountain, even if it means the deaths of everyone else on the team. (I KNEW he seemed too good to be true!)

As our intrepid rescuers truck along, several of them suffer unfortunate avalanche and/or nitroglycerin-related (KABOOM!) mishaps, so Peter, Wick, and Monique are the only ones who make it to the trapped climbers. While the rescue effort proceeds, the weather quickly turns to crap. Wind howls, snow pours down, hunks of ice crash everywhere, and soon Peter, Annie, Vaughn, and Wick all find themselves hanging by a single rope above a bottomless abyss, just like in the opening scene of the film. Will Wick do the noble-but-stupid thing just like Peter's Dad and cut the rope (complete with a serene, knowing "It's okay, kid" nod to Peter whilst Vaughn screams "NOOOOOOOOO!"), sending himself and the evil Vaughn to an icy grave just so Annie, Peter, and Monique can survive to tell the tale? Will Peter and Monique share a tender kiss? Will there be an emotional scene at Annie's hospital bedside where Annie tells Peter "Dad would be proud of you?" If you know the answers to these could've written this movie!!

Things I Learned from "Vertical Limit"

...NEVER let the rich guy hold onto the medication.

...The Pakistani military has extremely low quality control standards for nitroglycerin storage containers.

...The base of every high mountain peak is populated by a camp full of bizarre but charming characters, all of whom will be happy to follow a total stranger up the mountain to certain death.

...Extreme Mountain Climbing occasionally requires physical contortions usually found in Wile E. Coyote cartoons. For example, a human being can escape from an avalanche by jumping across a canyon with an ice axe in each hand, and plunging both of them simultaneously into the cliff face on the other side.

...It's OK to cause the deaths of a half dozen innocent people as long as your sister is alive and well at the end of the movie.

...And most of all, keep your nitroglycerin out of the sunlight!!

Summin' it up...

I'm probably being harsher on Vertical Limit than I need to be. Befitting its huge budget, the film is extremely well made, beautifully photographed (lovely snow-capped scenery abounds!) and decently acted. I enjoyed watching it, but the enjoyment came from picking out the assorted cliche's ather than from being wrapped up in the story.

Vertical Limit was intended to be a Holiday season blockbuster in 2000 but if memory serves, it ended up doing a fairly fast fade from theaters. Nowadays the portrayers of the Garrett siblings can be found doin' their thing on the small screen - Chris O'Donnell is a regular on TV's NCIS Los Angeles, while Tunney was last seen in The Fix. Their lone big-screen team-up Vertical Limit can still be found wherever Bargain Bin movies are sold.

© 2012 Keith Abt


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