Vertical Limit (review)

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The Absolute Limit

Apparently, in mountain-climbing jargon, the “vertical limit” is the point at which human beings can no longer survive without technological assistance. Above 26,000 feet of altitude, your lungs start to fill up with liquid and you start to drown in your own bodily fluids if don’t keep drinking water or you don’t start breathing bottled oxygen you’ve brought with you.

And now, thanks to Vertical Limit, I can spin off a new coinage: the “multiplex limit.” This is the point at which painfully wooden acting, absurd plotting, horrendous scriptwriting, and blatant product placement starts to take its toll, and you begin to drool helplessly and may emit soft moans indicative of a generalized flu-like, full-body ache. As with the dangers of frolicking at high altitudes, the multiplex limit is also a result of oxygen deprivation, as your incoherent giggles of ridicule cause you to hyperventilate.
In an attempt to outdo Richard Branson’s around-the-world balloon try, Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton: U-571, Twister) — billionaire and “bloody good climber” — wants to wave hello to the inaugural flight of his new airline from the top of the Himalayan peak K2 as the plane does a flyover. K2 is the toughest peak in the world, but Vaughn’s got the best climber in the world leading him: Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea, best known as rat boy Alex Krycek on The X-Files). Along for the ride is Annie Garrett (Robin Tunney: Supernova, End of Days), the Anna Kournikova of mountaineering — she gets the cover of Sports Illustrated because she has freckles and a cute little upturned nose, not because of any particular talent for the sport, at least as far as we’re made privy to.

Vertical Limit isn’t so much a man- versus- nature story as it is an idiots- versus- nature story. Things go bad on the mountain, because in spite of the best brand-name gear, clothing, computers, and carbonated beverages supporting them, Vaughn has Something to Prove. So he decrees that no oxygen shall be used on this climb, nor shall dangerous weather deter them. And McLaren, whom we’re told numerous times is the Top Guy in this field, is stupid enough to ignore his own better judgment when it comes to the safety of them all. Annie’s position in all of this? She stands around looking adorable, secure in the knowledge that her preciousness is all she needs to ensure her survival till the end of the film.

So we’re left with our three climbers high above the vertical limit and unable to get down. It won’t be long before they all start to swell up with pulmonary edemas and die, so time is of the essence. To their unlikely rescue come Peter Garrett (Chris O’Donnell: Batman and Robin), Annie’s brother, who just happens to be in the area even though he and she haven’t spoken for years since tragedy tore them apart; and Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn: The Virgin Suicides, The Silence of the Lambs), who looks like the hermit on Monty Python’s Flying Circus who would run out and rasp, “It’s…” before the opening credits, and is, in fact, apparently an actual hermit driven nearly insane with grief since the death of his wife on K2 several years before.

These guys are stupid, too. Vaughn may have been showing off, not using oxygen on his climb, but why on Earth would his rescuers put themselves at a similar disadvantage? Why would Peter, a National Geographic wildlife photographer, imagine that he had the kind of expertise necessary to use the canisters of nitro — borrowed from the Pakistani army, lurking nearby — to safely blast his way to his sister?

The answer, of course, is that having stupid characters lug a dangerous, unstable explosive up the second highest mountain in the world is supposed to be dramatic — stuff blowing up is always good for distracting the audience — when in actuality it’s the best reason for us to hope that every single person on the screen will bite it before the end of the film. In Vertical Limit, director Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro) has given us the emotionally phoniest movie of the year, one full of cornball spirituality in which every line is a cliché and “acting” means the actors exchange long, dead-eyed stares for moments that feel like eternities. Pulmonary edema seems like a good way to go after two hours of watching Chris O’Donnell and Robin Tunney trying to emote.

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