Summit Rut

In 'Vertical Limit,' What Goes Up Comes Way, Way Down.

IS THERE ANYONE whiter than Chris O'Donnell? I mean, the guy makes Opie Taylor look like Ol' Dirty Bastard. When he played Robin in Batman and Robin he actually seemed too much like a comic-book character for the part. Well, now O'Donnell brings his shockingly wholesome whiteness to Vertical Limit, the best mountain-climbing movie starring Chris O'Donnell to come out this week.

O'Donnell plays Peter Garrett, whose traumatic childhood is illustrated in the opening sequence: During a rock-climbing expedition with his dad and sister, he had to cut the rope that held his dad above a 200-foot vertical drop. Rope cut, dad dies, and suddenly Garret is a self-made orphan whose sister holds a grudge against him.

I shouldn't make light of this opening sequence, because, unlike every other part of this film, including the closing credits and, I'm guessing, the sprocket holes, it doesn't suck. It's actually pretty good. The emotions are powerful, and in spite of the obviousness of the situation, it doesn't feel horribly manipulative. The father is given character, the dilemma seems real, and Robin Tunney, as the sister, is convincing, if a bit hysterical.

Then, as if Dad's descent were a metaphor for the rest of the film, things rapidly go downhill and land with a sickening thud.

It's several years later, and Garrett is in Pakistan to shoot pictures of snow leopards for National Geographic. National Geographic is the first brand name featured in the film. After that, every piece of clothing, every tent, every water canteen, every pickaxe and every AK-47 prominently features a brand name. If you have a favorite brand of climbing gear, then this movie may be your one opportunity to see it given a starring part.

So Garrett hears tell that his sister is also in Pakistan, just over the next ridge, getting ready to climb K-2. K-2 is either the tallest mountain in the world, or the second tallest mountain in the world, depending on whether or not you use the metric system. Anyway, it seems that this Evil Rich Man, Elliot Vaughn, wants to get to the top of K-2 in time to wave as the first plane in his new airline flies overhead. To this end, Vaughn has hired Garrett's sister, Annie, to help get him there on schedule.

Now Garrett thinks that this is a bad idea, because, man, you don't tell the mountain when you're going to get to the top, you let the mountain tell you. Annie assures him that everything will be OK, in spite of the fact that there are ominous signs that an enormous storm is moving in.

Really, though, what are the odds of an enormous storm not moving in during a mountain-climbing movie? Has anyone ever made a mountain-climbing movie that didn't have a storm in it? Knowing that she's in a mountain-climbing movie, wouldn't Annie Garrett have thought that there must be a storm moving in?

Sure, you're asking, how could she know she's in a mountain climbing movie, what with her being a fictional character and all? Well, when people start tossing around lines like "It'd be suicide to go up that mountain!" and "When you're up there you're not dying, you're already dead!" then even a fictional character would have to figure out that this would have to be a movie, because no one talks like that in real life.

So anyway, Annie Garrett and Elliot Vaughn and company head up the mountain, when, surprise of surprises, the enormous storm hits. Suddenly, they're trapped in a crevasse, or maybe it's a crevice; this isn't entirely clear. Now they have to divide up the rations, wait for rescue and, I don't know, perhaps reveal their darker natures.

Vaughn, thinking the latter option the most fun, starts to do all kinds of evil things. Since Vaughn is played by Bill Paxton, who's really a pretty decent actor, such evil things would include hoarding medical supplies, killing off his fellow climbers, and taking a part in this crappy movie.

Of course, Peter Garrett must then get people to join a rescue party to go up the mountain and die off one by one as they search for his sister. To help them with the dying-off part, they each carry inexplicably leaky canisters of nitroglycerin. If you're wondering if any of the nitroglycerin canisters will explode prematurely and create dazzling special effects, don't worry, I won't spoil the amazing surprise explosion and avalanche sequence for you.

While on their way to certain doom, the rescue party picks up legendary climber Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn), who knew Garrett's dad, and gets to say reassuring things like "You did the right thing. Any climber would have done the same." Also, he wants to kill evil millionaire Elliot Vaughn, so he's really signed up with the right rescue party.

As they approach the summit, things are revealed and dead bodies are uncovered and stuff blows up and causes avalanches. I'm not saying which stuff, but let's just say you'll want to keep your eyes on the suspiciously leaky canisters of nitroglycerin.

Finally, the movie ends, and I swear to god, the credits really do suck. They're just boring old white type on a black background. I figure that this was such a punch-the-clock affair that as soon as was humanly possible, everyone involved in making it went home and tried to forget about it, leaving some poor janitor over at Columbia Pictures to type in the credits and send the film off for final processing. Considering how flammable film stock is, I can only dream of the counterfactual condition: Would that he had been smoking while he was doing it.

Vertical Limit is playing at Foothills (742-6174), Century Gateway (792-9000), Century Park (620-0750) and Century El Con (202-3343).

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