Movie Review

Vertical Limit: Cliffhanger can't even suspend disbelief

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Climbing Mount Everest or K2 is a rare accomplishment; so is keeping a straight face through "Vertical Limit." Despite some beautifully rugged surroundings (New Zealand doubling for the Himalayas), the movie's silliness negates its eye-popping landslides.

Chris O'Donnell ("The Bachelor") plays Peter Garrett, a shy nature photographer who hasn't come to terms with his father's death. In order to save himself and his sister Annie (Robin Tunney, "End of Days") from falling to their deaths from a Utah cliff, Peter had to cut the rope and thus send his father hurtling toward a rocky grave.

If Peter is understandably wary of ever climbing large rocks again, Annie isn't. While Peter is in Pakistan to snap pictures of furry little beasts, his sibling has become a famed climber and is preparing to conquer K2 with expert climber Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea) and the ostentatious tycoon Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton). The airline mogul would love to feed his own desire for adrenaline while plugging his company. All indicators look good until they are informed there is an 82 percent chance of good weather. In textbook film plots, that means the three of them are doomed.

When Peter's fears prove to be more accurate than meteorological data, the mountaineers fall into a crevice. A massive avalanche (the one real reason to see this flick) traps them inside. Even though they have no broken bones, various forms of altitude sickness will kill them if they aren't rescued within 36 hours. Not eager to lose another relative, Peter rushes to form a rescue team and even recruits his father's reclusive friend Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn, looking like a retired Grateful Dead roadie).

All of these activities might have led to some rousing adventure, but screenwriters Robert King ("Red Corner") and Terry Hayes ("The Road Warrior") decide that heights and falling rocks aren't scary enough. For some inexplicable reason, there have to be explosions. One should beware of any movie involving mountains and nitroglycerine that's not called "The Wages of Fear."

Director Martin Campbell (whose credits include the far superior "The Mask of Zorro") stretches the story to accommodate blasts the same way porn filmmakers oblige nudity. In one of the strangest sequences in recent memory, nitro leaks onto a man's boot. When a friend notices, he removes the volatile footwear and hurls it into the snow, leading to a predictably loud bang.

After a few more of these detonations, and some recurring sequences where the actors miraculously hang by their hands or a lone pick axe, the novelty wears off. One landslide is eye-candy, but anticipating a third is downright amusing. Campbell also demonstrates a little too much faith in the special effects. Some of the storms look horrifyingly real, while others resemble a PlayStation screen. Worse, the cavern that holds the trapped climbers can't pass for anything but a set.

Fortunately, many of the other laughs are intentional. Steve Le Marquand and Ben Mendelsohn are a riot as a pair of gonzo climbers who sunbathe in the nude and dish out cleverly vulgar insults ("One hundred thousand sperms, and YOU were the fastest"). With some sharper, more original characters like these, "Vertical Limit" wouldn't leave its audience dangling in disbelief.

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