It’s not hard to imagine what the Vertical Limit pitch meeting went like…
“Imagine: You’re close to the top of one of the highest peaks on Earth. You’re on a desperate rescue mission to save your dying sister who’s just a few hours of climbing away. You reach a plateau, ready to plan your next move.
But there’s nowhere left to go. A three-thousand-foot drop separates you from completing your mission. What do you do? Turn around and give in to the mountain? No. You take an ax in each hand, and you run. Run like you’ve never run before. You jump. You swing your arms wildly, praying the axes catch the giant stone that’s getting bigger and bigger as you fly through the air. Because if one of them doesn’t, you’re both doomed.
This fall: Will you hit … the Vertical Limit?”
That was the scene this film’s marketing campaign highlighted relentlessly way back in December 2000, and if there’s a reason you remember Vertical Limit, it’s for this scene (and a trailer voice’s ability to sell it.)
Even that might be a bit of a stretch. Odds are you remember nothing about Vertical Limit, but for me, it holds a special little place in my heart. No, I didn’t climb K2, but rather it’s the first DVD I ever purchased. As such, it got a lot of play back in the early aughts, yet I haven’t revisited it in well over a decade.
Today, it’s not hard to call the film what it is: Pretty watchable, but not especially good. It’s basically The Wages of Fear on steroids, except The Wages of Fear is one of the five best movies ever made, and Vertical Limit isn’t one of the five best movies that came out in December 2000 (Traffic, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Cast Away, and O Brother Where Art Thou? all top it easily, and I stan for Miss Congeniality, as well. #April25IsThePerfectDate)
The film begins with a nightmarish prologue. (Have I mentioned I’m terrified of heights?) Peter (Chris O’Donnell) and Annie Garrett (Robin Tunney) are scaling some rock in the Utah desert with their father, Royce (Stuart Wilson), when some amateurs at 12:00 come tumbling down, leaving them all one precarious peg away from death. Royce insists that Peter cut him loose, despite his sister’s protests, because it’s the only way any of them will survive. He does so, but this creates a rift between the siblings that’s not broached until we jump ahead to K2 and the film’s main action.
Peter is now a photographer who gave up on climbing. Annie continues to chase the thrill and feels closer to her father whenever she summits a mountain. This time, she’s helping lead her boyfriend, Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton, in a classic shit-eating Bill Paxton role), to the second-highest peak in the world. He’s a millionaire with some business interests on the line if he meets an aggressive timetable to the top.
But when a storm comes and traps them underground, in a place where oxygen is in extremely short supply, Peter decides to put his boots back on and organizes a team of six on a rescue mission. The trick is they must travel with very tempermental C4 explosives in order to get them down, meaning every slip or stumble could be the end.
If either Chris O’Donnell or Robin Tunney had made it really big, it feels like Vertical Limit would be an interesting footnote in either career, which would make it more memorable. (The same goes for director Martin Campbell, who made two great Bond films in Goldeneye and Casino Royale, but not much else of note.) Still, the film has some really fun supporting performances. I already mentioned Paxton, whose just a world-class prick here. Ben Mendelsohn plays Malcolm, one half of the Bench Brothers. He and his brother, Cyril (Steve Le Marquand), can climb as well as anyone when they aren’t drunk or unmotivated. And Scott Glenn has an important role as Montgomery Wick, a stand-in father figure for Peter, who has a score to settle against Elliot Vaughn.
The film’s biggest problem is its use of special effects. At one point, an avalanche threatens some of our characters, and they shouldn’t have even bothered to scrub out the stock footage watermark that surely sat in the lower corner of the frame. There’s also a certain inevitability with how it plans to resolve itself that saps some of the fun out of the final third or so.
You could do worse with your generic man vs. nature action films (though I actually think Baltasar Kormákur did better on a similar theme with Everest just a couple years ago.) Despite some shoddy writing and large-scale action, there’s just enough fast-and-loose camaraderie to give it a watch … and a pass.
Verdict: Exactly the correct amount of forgotten.