Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:05 - Released 12/8/00

John Kennedy once said, "Why climb the highest mountain?" The popular response to such a question is "because it is there," and any number of climbers could probably give as many different answers. But in Martin Campbell's Vertical Limit, the reason is mainly the superinflated ego of the expedition's leader. Written by Robert King (Red Corner) and Terry Hayes (Payback), the movie delivers thrills and chills (both the good kind and the bad), while stretching credibility within a hair's breadth of the breaking point and barely rising above the average performances of most of its cast members.

Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) is an experienced climber and business tycoon about to open his new airline, Majestic Air. As a promotional scheme, he intends to head up an expedition to the top of K2, the world's second highest and most difficult mountain, and be there to wave on the airline's inaugural flight over the summit. Although he is an egotistical jerk, he has the money to hire the world's best climbers to go along, including Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea), who has scaled Everest several times, and the up-and-coming Annie Garrett (Robin Tunney), who has gone on to greatness after surviving a harrowing climbing accident that claimed the life of her father and caused her brother Peter (Chris O'Donnell) to give up the sport. As the expedition is about to be launched, Peter goes to the base camp, high in the Pakistani wilderness, to visit his estranged sister and take some pictures for National Geographic.

In one of many predictable turns of events in this story, Elliot's haste in reaching the summit results in disaster. Although he designates McLaren as the team's leader, he refuses to back down when bad weather prompts McLaren to call off the climb. An ensuing avalanche kills most of the climbing party and traps Elliot, Annie, and Tom in a crevasse, prompting a rescue mission by Peter and several others.

This movie is by no means unpredictable, but it is thrilling. Its many action scenes are well framed by Campbell and supported by convincing effects (even though most of them go on too long), and the actors do a reasonably credible job. The script fails to flesh out some of the less major characters on the rescue expedition, resulting in an ease of predicting who's going to survive and who's not, but some of the red shirts are more convincing in their doomed roles than the film's headliners. A notable performance is given by Scott Glenn as a wizened old climber who, after having lost his wife in an expedition headed by Elliot, has a score to settle. Paxton is passable as Elliot; it's the best performance I've seen him do since Apollo 13, which isn't saying much.

All in all, Vertical Limit is passable entertainment; it is formulaic at times but its sweeping visuals and action-packed adventure is thrilling enough to divert our attention from its less-than-plausible plot details. ***½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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