The Forg-aught-ens: Vertical Limit

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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.

The Forg-aught-ens: Breach

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In February 2001, American politicians of all ideological persuasions came together and acknowledged the great work done by the nation’s intelligence agencies in bringing down Robert Hanssen, a high-ranking agent himself who sold secrets to agents of the Soviet Union and Russia for nearly two decades. 

In January 2007, writer-director Billy Ray shared his fictionalized and cinematic version of these events with Chris Cooper in the Hanssen role and Ryan Phillippe playing Eric O’Neill, the ambitious intelligence analyst who suddenly found himself involved in the greatest case in FBI history. 

Watching his film, Breach, and reliving this story in May 2018 is a trip. Possible collusion with Russia by an American presidential campaign is the biggest story in the world, and the president in question tweets about it incessantly. Gone are the days, it seems, when those working with Russia did so in the shadows.

There are some similarities between the cases, however. While the president’s sexual dalliance with a porn star may have connections to his or his campaign’s Russian relations, some weird sex shit also brought Hanssen down. In addition to betraying his country, he posted sex stories about his wife on the internet without her knowledge and at least once (per the film) mailed someone a sex tape of him with his wife. 

That’s the pretense under which O’Neill is meant to surveil Hanssen. The former reports to Laura Linney, in an underwritten role, who eventually shares with him the truth. It’s a powerful moment in a complicated, well-told story that’s probably forgotten because it lacks a certain cinematic touch, but that’s pretty clearly by Ray’s design.

Breach might be the grayest film of this century. That’s not to say its morals are conflicted—though they are—but rather, everything in the film is gray and dulled. Washington—so beautiful and picturesque in the springtime with its endless sea of cherry blossoms—is, in the wintertime, a wash of intimidating white buildings. The FBI interiors are soul-suckingly nondescript. The only change of decoration occurs when a new president’s and attorney general’s portrait is hung on the wall. Ten years later, we seem to flip out over films with striking cinematography that are otherwise uninspired—like Blade Runner 2049, which just flopped around for three hours in a sea of pretty colors. Breach is the opposite—tight, compact, tense, and gray AF.

O’Neill’s struggle to do his job when he feels a certain loyalty to Hanssen is especially interesting. It’s a shame a more capable actor than Phillippe wasn’t cast in the role. It seems like we were still trying to make that whole thing happen in early 2007, but he’s just not that great here, and it’s not hard to think of a half dozen actors of a similar profile and age at that time who would have truly excelled in this film—I mean, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon both had career-best work just a few months earlier playing undercover parts in The Departed

For all Phillippe’s shortcomings, Chris Cooper is brilliant and conveys Hanssen as a guy who really seemed to buy into his own hype and now doesn’t know what’s real or not in his life. He seems to enjoy secretly holding his crimes over those above him at the Bureau. When he walks passed the reserved parking spaces of Director Louis Freeh and others, there’s a glint in his eye that makes it clear he thinks his accomplishments—legality and morality be damned—are more impressive than theirs, and while that means he toils away in a windowless office, it’s the life and career he’s chosen. 

Breach isn’t a groundbreaking film, but if not for its real-life origins, it could be straight out of a LeCarre novel, and to that end, it belongs in the company of the screen adaptations of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Ray’s filmmaking doesn’t set the world on fire, but his storytelling sensibilities are very strong, and as far as seemingly disposable January thrillers go, it’s as good as it gets. 

Verdict: Unfairly forgotten.

The Forg-aught-ens: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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Secret interdimensional alien civilizations, flesh-devouring ant colonies, Shia LaBeouf doing his best Tarzan impression, and the world's most durable refrigerator ... not exactly what audiences were clamoring for when a new Indiana Jones film was announced. But almost 19 years to the date since Harrison Ford last donned his famous fedora, that's what we got. 

It's hard to believe Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (OK, maybe not so much for the latter) could get this project so wrong, and yet, ten years later, watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn't quite the chore I was expecting going in.

Today, it's hard to avoid reboots of decades-old franchises. On the big screen, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo are as visible as Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man. The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park/World will take the next crack at dominating the merchandise shelves. And on television, Roseanne Barr and family are bringing in the best ratings of the season. But in 2008, this was an exception to the norm. It was freaking insane that we were getting another Indiana Jones entry with Harrison Ford and other original cast and crew members in tow and it was hard not to place it among the most anticipated films of the summer of 2008. 

The film expels Nazis from the original trilogy's equation and replaces them with agents of the Soviet Union, led by Cate Blanchett's Irina Spalko. Instead of searching for an artifact of ancient Christendom, this quest is for the secrets of a lost Mesoamerican civilization. After being fired from his job at Marshall College, Indiana is approached by a young man named Mutt (LaBeouf) with news that Jones' former colleague Harold Oxley (John Hurt) is missing in Peru with an artifact known as a crystal skull in his possession. Mutt's mother, Mary, is being held captive and hopes Jones can rescue her and find Oxley. So Jones and his new young sidekick (a step up from Short Round, but not by much) travel by map to the jungles of South America with Spalko right on his tail.

The set-up—minus the truly inexplicable nuclear test sequence—is pure Indiana Jones, but the choices made therein are just bizarre. It's like gymnast going out on the floor for a routine, doing a couple successful flips and twirls, and then doing the chicken dance. It's ... a choice, but not one that makes very much sense when everyone watching is expecting something comfortably familiar and wholly entertaining. 

Its failure on this front led to a pretty uninspired box office run, relatively speaking. While Crystal Skull opened with a $100 million weekend, it barely scraped over the $300 million mark domestically. For comparison, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a film with a similarly long wait between installations, cleared that mark in five days.

But still, it is only a total trainwreck if you insist on comparing it to the three far superior films that preceded it. Otherwise, it's a moderately engaging action film with a handful of fun set pieces. It moves really quickly once the crew is on the ground in Peru—from darkened ancient dwellings to a chase on a boat-car and finally toward the final hidden destination. Some of it is stupid. If not for the nuclear blast, the gang's surviving three gigantic waterfalls would be the film's silliest moment. But most of it is passable and the Jones/Ravenwood (surprise!) banter is actually quite fun. 

Ultimately, though, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull failed to move the pop culture needle even a bit and the fedora was hung up—at least until a promised fifth installment hits theaters in 2020. And it's a film that hasn't inspired so much as a cursory glance since that disappointing day in May '08. 

It's hard to call the film "forgotten" because it made so much money, because it's part of a major and iconic franchise, and because some of its dumbest moments are the stuff dumb movie legend—have I mentioned that Indiana Jones SURVIVES A NUCLEAR BLAST BY GOING INTO A REFRIGERATOR?!?!? 

But as a "forg-aught-en," my first, I say Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is somewhere in between rightly and unfairly.

Verdict: Exactly the correct amount of forgotten.