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Vertical Limit Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 August 2007

Image After recharging the James Bond franchise in 1995 with “Goldeneye” (he did the same recently with “Casino Royale”), and reviving Zorro for modern audiences (1998’s “The Mask of Zorro”), director Martin Campbell cranked out this slick, by-the-numbers mountain-climbing adventure film.

Peter Garrett (Chris O’Donnell) and his sister, Annie (Robin Tunney) lose their father in a mountain-climbing accident. Several years later, the incident has left Peter and Annie estranged, and Peter reluctant to ever climb again. While stopping over at Annie’s mountainside base camp, his attempt at reconciliation is sidelined by the arrival of millionaire Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton). Vaughn is an experienced mountain-climber who previously attempted an expedition to climb K2 that ended in failure and tragedy. Now Vaughn wants to take another crack at K2, and this time he has tied it to a publicity stunt. While on the expedition, Vaughn is warned of a possible oncoming storm, but he cajoles leader Tom McClaren (Nicholas Lea) to continue, claiming the odds are with them. Unfortunately, they end up caught in the storm, and fall into a crevasse. While Annie, Vaughn and a badly injured McClaren struggle to survive, Peter puts together a rescue party and heads up the mountain to save them. Peter and his crew have only 36 hours in which to save the trapped mountaineers before high altitude pulmonary edema will kill them.

“Vertical Limit” is an unpretentious big budget time-waster. It’s not bad, it is just not distinguished or very interesting, though it is filled with action and incident. As one of the mountaineering experts that worked on the film states in the featurettes, it’s kind of a greatest hits package of mountaineering disasters. While a time-bound rescue of climbers in a crevasse is a tense enough setup, we are treated to sudden storms, an avalanche, nitroglycerin explosions, broken transmitters, rescues of people hanging off an icy cliff, a nerve-wracking helicopter drop-off during intense winds, plus snow madness as Vaughn (Bill Paxton) goes from callous to murderous in his efforts to save himself. And then there’s Scott Glenn as Montgomery Wick, an eccentric mountain climber who’s been trying to find the body of his wife, who died on Vaughn’s last expedition. The film is solid technically, and benefits from the huge amount of footage that was shot on authentic mountain locations. This adds a great sense of verisimilitude to the rather farfetched proceedings. Unfortunately, the reflections of the crew standing around holding bounce-cards can be glimpsed in several characters’ mirrored sunglasses pulling you right out of the film. The CG and special effects work is acceptable, though one tends to sense the sequences where enhancements were made. There’s a little less polish in the effects here than could be done with today’s computer programs. The episodic nature of the story and the set piece nature of the storytelling become a bit wearying after awhile and the film overstays its welcome a bit. The cast is fairly solid, with Paxton and Scott Glenn doing their usually reliable jobs. O’Donnell is fine, though Tunney is a bit mannered and limited, especially in the early portions of the film. The inclusion of some comic relief Australians seems oddly out of place; they’re the kind of characters introduced by the marketing division. “Yes, it’s suspenseful and we like that, but can you make it funnier? Suspense and funny are both in.” The fates of those characters would seem a good indication of what the filmmaker thought of the idea. In that vein, there is a surprising amount of unexpected deaths in the film, mostly thanks to the ridiculous subplot that has members of the group carrying tanks of nitroglycerine around with them. And since the subject of nitroglycerine has come up, do small amounts of nitroglycerine explode in giant fireballs when it’s poured out or stepped on?

The Blu-ray disc is a satisfying HD encoding of the film. The colors are particularly vivid and the array of brightly colored jackets and parkas pop on screen, contrasting nicely with the snowy mountainous backdrops. The clarity and sharpness are exceptional at times, both in wider shots of mountain-scapes and especially in tight close-ups. During some shots you can actually see every pore on an actor’s face. The blowing snow also is presented with stability and precision, allowing it to appear as it should, never becoming a digitally compressed blur. The extra crispness of the transfer makes it easier to detect which shots are real and which are shot in a studio. There is the odd soft shot, but given the majority of the transfer, this is probably photography-related and isn’t a transfer issue.

The uncompressed PCM audio is vibrant and impressive. Given the subject matter and the importance of the weather and the wind in the story, one would expect the 5.1 surround mix to be highly active and involving. The mix is a terrific, involving presentation, constantly buffeting the viewer in intense atmospheric activity from all channels. There are a few sequences featuring helicopters that are extremely active in the sound field, the bass pounding of the copter rumbling through the subwoofer, and the rotors and wind itself spinning through all the other speakers. Nitroglycerine explosions and avalanche effects also are given substantial weight and bass presence. The mix is well-balanced and loud enough without overpowering the dialogue. Once set for the dialogue, the receiver volume never needed to be touched again.

The disc packaging lists an erroneous running time of 119 mins instead of the actual length of 125 mins. The bonus materials were created for the first DVD release. “Surviving the Limit” is the most substantial of the featurettes, running 24 minutes. The rest of the featurettes run between 3 to 5 minutes and tend to be focused on one aspect of the filmmaking or a particular scene and how it was accomplished. For those interested in high altitude pulmonary edema and the drugs used to fight it in the film, “The Elixir of Life” explains it in great detail.

“Vertical Limit” is a large-budgeted big action adventure, full of the kind of suspense and clean storytelling that makes for a crowd-pleaser. There’s not much too it, but its technically accomplished and entertaining. It’s nothing special but one could do much worse. As a Blu-ray disc, it’s not a bad demo either, especially the helicopter drop-off sequence.

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