by Adam Miller
I first saw VERTICAL LIMIT in an Orlando theater. I was a freshman in high school and played on the chess team (and yes, in case you were wondering, I have had sex since then). I had traveled to Orlando with my fellow chessmates and our coach whose name, no kidding, is Rex. There was a big three day tournament we were playing in and one of the nights off we decided to go out to the movies. VERTICAL LIMIT seemed like the perfect choice for a bunch of adolescent teens and their almost-just-as-adolescent chess coach. Throughout the whole film, however, my coach would constantly shout out “I’m never taking up that sport!” Over and over again. Every time something went wrong, he’d shout that out. Unfortunately, everything in this movie that possibly could go wrong, does.
I write that little prologue because I really can’t watch VERTICAL LIMIT without hearing my chess coach’s voice in my head, but it seriously begs the question: why does anyone in this movie take up that stupid, stupid sport? Or rather, why does the movie insist on depicting mountain climbing as the dumbest, most dangerous activity in the world? But of course, it’s not bad mountain climbing that draws my interest, it’s bad movie making. And VERTICAL LIMIT is truly one of the dumbest films to come along in quite some time.
We begin with an eagle soaring over a desert landscape. It’s a fake eagle, but that doesn’t stop Peter Garett from taking photographs of it. Peter is a rock climber and a photographer, you see. And he’s climbing some big rock cliffs in the middle of the desert with his sister, Annie, and his father. Annie is singing some Eagles song and Peter is trying to guess the artist, song name, and year. Then it’s his turn, and he starts singing "MacArthur Park" by Richard Harris, 1968 (why I remember that one and not the Eagles song I don’t know). Anyway, this is all far from entertaining. The dad chides his two kids and tells Annie to anchor another cam. And okay, I guess I should try to explain some of this terminology. Cams are little spring-loaded hook things which wedge between cracks in rocks. They’re what keep you from fall-down-go-boom should you lose your grip. In theory, that is. In this movie, we learn that cams are in fact the most unreliable things in the world. As are ropes. And climbing boots. And pick axes. And common sense. Er, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Dad tells Peter to belay Annie (which basically means, help her with her ropes as she climbs, or something) when suddenly we hear the sound of sliding rocks above. The characters look up and see two other guys climbing the mountain lose their grip or whatever and start taking the short way down to the bottom of the cliff.
In what has immediately become my favorite bad movie line, the dad shouts out: “Amateurs at twelve o’clock!” I mean it’s a quote that’s just so serviceable. First of all, did the family not notice these guys climbing above them the whole time? It’s not like they’re fighter planes coming out of the blue with machine guns spraying. But in day-to-day parlance I can see myself saying that all the time, just walking down the street and seeing some freshmen walking towards me: “Amateurs at twelve o’clock!” Hehehe.
Anyway, the amateurs fall and in so doing take the entire Garrett family with them. Good thing Annie anchored in her cam as everyone comes to a stop dangling from one rope attached to one cam. Now, first of all, apparently the idea of one cam holding the weight of five people is slim to none. But let’s just say Annie did a really good job anchoring that cam. Anyway, we go from singing "MacArthur Park" to everyone screaming their heads off. I guess this is the movie’s way of ratcheting up the tension. And I suppose when accidents do happen in rock climbing they come unexpectedly (hence the word) and you could go from being completely safe one moment to being one cam from death the next. But all the same, I wish the actors had toned it down a bit. Annie is crying and shrieking, Peter and dad are shouting and the two amateurs are hooting and hollering and swinging all around.
Eventually the amateurs somehow fall and die. So I guess now they’re amateurs at six o’clock? But that still leaves two too many people attached to one cam. It’ll never hold! Dad now tries to convince Peter to cut the rope beneath him so that the dad dies and Peter and Annie may live. In other words, he’s sacrificing one life in order to save two. It’s a powerful, if tragic, lesson a father might give his children. It is also a lesson which neither Peter nor Annie will take to heart since, as we will see, both find it completely reasonable to invert the life to death ratio. After much screaming we cut to a shot of the desert floor and hear the computer graphic eagle cawing in the distance. Did Peter cut the rope or not? Just what happened? Then suddenly: THUMP! Dad’s body hits dirt. Frankly, it’s about the silliest way they could have handled the resolution to that scene. Especially because it’s quite obvious the body is a dummy.
Prologue resolved, we cut to some gorgeous shots of what is supposedly the Karakoram Mountain Range, home of the famous K2. Peter is in a lodge taking photos of some snow leopards playing. They seem to be having a lot of fun. I’m envious. This photo session is interrupted and Peter and one of his Pakistani guides go outside. The guide somehow slips or something and goes flying through the air. His leg lands between two rocks and breaks. The hell? These people essentially live in the mountains and they can’t walk two feet without breaking a limb?
Which leads my to one of my crazy hypotheses in a vain, desperate attempt to make sense of this movie: Annie and Peter are cursed. It’s like in THE OMEN where everyone around the little Anti-Christ gets killed in all sorts of bizarre accidents. Well, likewise, anyone within ten feet of Peter or Annie gets killed in these mountains. Except Peter and Annie. Anyone else find that rather suspicious?
A helicopter comes to pick up the Pakistani and fly both him and Peter to a nearby Pakistani artillery camp. There we meet some Pakistani colonel who must have really pissed off some superiors to be stationed out in the friggin mountains. I mean seriously, isn’t his job kind of a military joke? Like disappearing disgraced Soviet commanders to Siberia? Understandably, the colonel is a bit grumpy. He only received a third of his supplies because the rest of the helicopter was filled up with supplies for climbers trying to go up K2. And you know, yeah, that doesn’t sound kind of outrageous on the part of these mountain climbers. Anyway, the colonel shoots off some artillery at the Indian border while Peter gets a lift to the K2 base camp where, we discover, Annie is currently preparing for a summit attempt.
The two have drifted apart since their father’s death, you see. Peter has decided to never climb again, whereas Annie decides to climb all the time. Peter keeps track of her by reading magazines about her. Kind of weird. Annie is now working for Elliott Vaugh, an EVIL CAPITALIST who tried to mount K2 four years ago but instead encountered disaster. He was the only one who survived 24 hours in the dead zone and walked down the mountain the next day. Good climber or… EVIL CAPITALIST??? This time Elliott will not let the mountain defeat him because he’s brought all sorts of fancy computers and equipment to make sure his attempt works. He’s so confident, he’s even going to have his brand new airliner fly over the summit so he can wave to it. Yeah, definitely EVIL CAPITALIST.
Peter surprises Annie and they have one of those awkward conversations usually reserved for two characters who will eventually develop a romantic interest in one another but just don’t know it yet. In fact, watching this scene, I am almost convinced that Chris O’Donnell is hitting on the actress supposedly playing his sister. Anyway, they get into a fight about whether or not Peter should have cut the rope blah blah agree to blah disagree.
Next we get introduced to Montgomery Wick: an old bearded man with a face craggier than the mountain itself! Yargh! He also has no toes and his wife was killed tragically four years ago. Hmm…
But never mind all that, it’s time to PARTAY! Elliott throws a huge shindig at base camp and I suddenly realize why they are mountain climbers. It’s because they’re just a bunch of people who like to get drunk and have sex in tents. Apparently they’ve never heard of college. We learn that Tom McLaren will be leading Elliott’s expedition and that up on the mountain there can only be one man in charge, and that’s Tom. Riiiiiight.
Wick shows up and tries to be a party pooper by pointing out all the flaws in Elliott’s plans. It’s about the only time anyone tries to make sense in this movie, but even this is obscured by the stupidity of the conversation which involves Elliott talking through a megaphone while Wick just stands in a crowd speaking at normal levels. I guess he has the Power of the Mountains in his voice.
The next day the expedition begins. Elliott, Annie, Tom, and two Pakistanis go up K2. We get some impressive shots of tiny people on big mountains. But we also get some ominous shots of wisps of cloud appearing over the peaks nearby. The radar says there’s some bad weather developing, but there’s a 70% chance it’ll miss the party. Tom says he won’t risk it and wants to go down, but Elliott needles him a little bit and convinces Tom to go on. Annie, I might add, also thinks they should keep going. So let’s be clear, the only one making any sense right now is Tom. Tom is the good guy.
Tom also let’s himself get bullied by Elliott and agrees to keep going. But wouldn’t you know the weather keeps getting worse. Again they stop. Again Tom says let’s go back. Again Elliott convinces him to keep going. Wash, rinse, repeat. I have to wonder, why does Tom let himself get bullied like this? I mean, he’s climbed some of the greatest mountains in the world, he’s faced death on numerous occasions, and he’s letting some billionaire bully him? I’ve honestly got a feeling that if I were a serious mountain climber I’d be more offended by the script’s insistence that Tom be “right” but also be completely spineless.
Anyway the storm finally makes it obvious that like it or not, no one will be going up the mountain today. They have to turn back. Annie leads the way, crawling along the snow while everyone else is walking. I guess she’s doing something important, but I guess she also sucks at it because she suddenly falls through the ice into a deep crevasse. She drags Elliott and Tom along with her but in one of many times in this film, someone digs their cleats in at the last second and keeps everyone from going off a cliff. Ok, phew. Now just pull her up and be on your way. Just one problem. The storm just happened to cause an avalanche which just happens to be heading straight towards them. Elliott and Tom also get blown in the crevasse. The two Pakistanis get blown to kingdom come (we couldn’t have to unnamed characters survive, could we?)
Back at base camp people basically are saying: “Oh shit.” One woman is actually crying. The hell? Was she particularly attached to anyone on that trip? Or maybe it’s that she’s a woman and they stereotypically cry. It’s seriously a major stereotype moment that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. We have no idea who this woman is. She’s just a woman and that means she cries. Yuck! Stuff like that is what makes dating feminists from time to time worth it.
Inside the crevasse Elliott and Annie are more or less okay, but Tom is badly injured. Apparently they’re up at 24,000 feet or so. At that altitude after time your lungs get adema and fill up with fluid if you don’t drink enough water or get shots of this special medicine called Draxemine. Elliott says they need to ration their resources. At best they’ll be able to make it 36 hours.
Base camp tries to contact the climbers by radio and Peter finally figures out that Morse code signal just might penetrate the rock. Indeed, it does, and Annie codes back that she is alive along with Tom and Elliott. Everyone at base camp starts going crazy with joy until they notice a Pakistani guy standing there looking somber. Oh that’s right, people who weren’t white bourgeois mountain climbers were also on that trip. The Pakistani man says “If three survive, maybe there are others.” To which everyone responds by looking down their noses at him.
Peter then begins trying to make plans to mount a rescue expedition. The problem is, no one wants to go. This gets Peter really pissed. Of course, Peter hasn’t climbed in since his father’s death and he now wants to mount a rescue operation atop the most dangerous mountain in the world. Also, maybe everyone there knew that Peter cut the rope off his own father (I could probably write a nice little castration essay on this film) and we like “Screw it, I’m no climbing with a guy who has no qualms killing his own father.”
Well, eventually Peter does assemble his crack team, the best of the best. How good are these climbers… well: First we get Aziz, the Pakistani man whose brother “may” still be alive up there. The script actually makes it explicitly clear that Aziz is an inexperience climber. Great start. Then we get the Bench brothers, Malcolm and Cyril who are two alcoholic sexists who basically just live at base camp because they get free booze. Nice. We also pick up Monique, the base camp medic who also happens to be a gorgeous blond (some of you may recognize her as Natalya from Golden Eye, also directed by Martin Cambell. Muse much?). She at first seems relatively competent, but that myth gets dispelled shortly. Finally, Montgomery Wick himself decides to go once he knows that Elliott Vaugh is one of the people needing rescuing. DUN DUN DUH!!!.
Of course, the clock is ticking, and even with great assembly of climbers, they still won’t have enough time to dig Annie and co. out. They need something that get through a ton of snow quick… I know what’ll do the trick: Nitroglycerin!!! So it’s off to the Pakistani military camp who just happen to have some in stock and apparently don’t mind giving it away to anyone who asks. But before the team can even pick the stuff up there’s a leak and it begins dripping on some guy’s boot. If he moves, everyone gets blown to smithereens. And oh for Pete’s sake (the saint, not this idiot). Can nothing in this movie go as planned? I’m telling you, my Peter as the Omen theory isn’t all that far off. Fortunately, the boot situation is resolved and the nitro is loaded into the chopper in which Monique happily sits there puffing away at a cigarette. The movie itself point out just how stupid this is, but it fails to regard the fact that for any serious mountain climber to be a smoker at all is incredibly stupid if not impossible. I mean these people are operating where there is basically no oxygen. Smoking does not fit into the equation.
The helicopter takes off and flies the crew as high up the mountain as possible. Unfortunately it goes a bit too high and the crew have to jump from the helicopter onto a nearby cliff in death-defying stunts. They all make it, but Monique almost gets her head chopped off by the propeller blades. Again, great planning.
The rescue crew split up into three groups (why, I’m not sure). One Bench brother goes with Aziz, the other goes with Monique, and Wick and Peter go together. Great, the movie is now resorting to horror movie clichés to kill off its characters. Up they all go in a race against time. Of course, according to this movie just normal mountain climbing is boring. Something has to always be going wrong for it to be exciting. Right?
So no sooner than you can say “Into thin air” the Bench brother climbing with Monique sets his backpack down to have a drink of water. The backpack then slides down the mountain yanking the idiot with it (keep in mind, everyone of these backpacks has a canister of nitro in it. What’s more, the nitro is stored in a little pocket on the OUTSIDE of the backpack. The stupidity of this will become painfully, repeatedly clear. So Bench brother flies down the mountain and digs his trusty pick axe in at the last moment so that he’s dangling off a cliff by one arm. He then supports himself by that one arm as Monique approaches to try to help him. Rather than standing a safe distance away and tossing him a rope, Monique walks as close as she can and begins test-stomping on the ledge to see if it will break under her weight. This might be a good idea most of the time, but NOT when someone else is hanging on the ledge which might give way. Of course it does but Monique luckily tosses a rope just in time and hooks it on Bench Bro’s pickaxe. So now they’re BOTH dangling off the click being held up only by Monique’s pickaxe. She eventually swings Bench over to a ledge which he grabs a hold of but in so doing OOPS the nitro canister falls out and plummets to the ground below. Bench bro scrambles up the cliff leaving Monique to face the wrath of the explosion herself, I guess. The single canister causes a HUGE fireball which shoots all the way up the cliff, but luckily Monique survives. She cries out for the Bench brother as she hangs on for dear life. A rope drops down and we hear Bench’s voice saying “Nag, nag, nag, that’s all you women do.” Much funnier than that line is the fact that those are actually his last words as lo-and-behold the Nitro set off yet another avalanche which sends Bench bro flying off the cliff to his death. Monique survives yet again and finally climbs up.
Now, look how long that paragraph is. Look how many letters I capitalized. The scene takes just as long to watch and is just as over-the-top and gaudy. But after all’s said and done the stupid Bench brother still dies!!! All the excitement and valor was completely wasted. All because his damn backpack slipped!
Anyway more climbing. And heavy breathing. It was astutely pointed out to me that most of this movie consists of people breathing heavily. Truer words never spoken. Bench Bro. #2 is sad that his brother just died, but decides to go on. Monique magically catches up with Wick and Peter. We learn that Wick lost his wife on the same expedition Elliott climbed with four years ago when tragedy struck. Further, Wick blames Elliott for her death and he means to have his revenge. Of course, he could have just refused to go on the rescue mission and let Elliott die to accomplish this, but whatever, damnit, we need more ACTION!!!
This is provided via one of the dumber deus ex machinae I’ve ever seen. Back at the Pakistani military camp Colonel Stuck-in-the-snow is having a cup of tea when KAPOW the camp explodes around him. He’s unharmed, but looks a bit like Wile E. Coyote after a particularly bad run-in with the Road Runner. As it turns out, the nitroglycerin explodes when exposed to sunlight. Right, so now we’re drawing from the plot arc of Plan 9 from Outer Space? “Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!”
Anyway, they get word up to rescue team as quickly as they can. Gee, maybe if the climbers had put the explosive shit INSIDE their bags this wouldn’t be a problem. Wick and Peter get the news and quickly cover up the nitro. Meanwhile Aziz and Bench Bro. #2 have turned their radios off and are out of contact. Peter runs up a ridge and signals to them. Will they get their radios on in time? The tension mounts! They do indeed turn on their radio and Peter tells them to get the nitro into the shade. They run to the shade, will they be fast enough? YES! They make it. Phew. Aziz and Bench Bro. #2 share a laugh and a drink of water, but little do they know the nitro canister is… LEAKING. You might think someone would have checked the seals on these things considering we already saw they were prone to leak. But even still it’s just all so STUPID. How the hell is it the entire Pakistani army hasn’t blow itself to smithereens by now? Well the nitro drips into the sunlight and Aziz and Bench Bro. #2 get blown to smithereens. So the comic relief is now toast as is, once again, the only non-white climber.
While all this complete idiocy is going on the mountainside, the “sub” (haha) plot continues with Annie, Tom, and Elliott who are quickly running out of supplies. Tom is in pretty bad shape and Elliott wants to stop giving him supplies his logic being that one should die when two might live. Familiar, right? Keep in mind half of the rescue crew has died at this point. Annie insists that no, Tom gets to keep getting supplies. Well this makes Elliott grouchy and he eventually kills Tom by injecting oxygen into his veins.
Up above, the explosion exposed a part of the ice face and reveals the frozen body of Montgomery Wick’s dead wife! Now what the hell are the odds of that happening? This fortuitous discovery reveals that she didn’t have any Drexamine on her which is suspicious because Wick says she always had Drexamine on her. Hmm, maybe Elliott is no stranger to murdering people and stealing their Drexamine after all… The next morning Peter and Monique get a head start and leave Wick behind, I guess because they’re worried he’s going to go on a homicidal rampage once he finds Eliott. Makes sense. We now come to the film’s money shot in which Chris O’Donnell leaps across a canyon with nothing but two pickaxes and buries them into the rock face. Honestly, after all I’ve described thus far, you might realize that this is far from the dumbest part of the movie. Chris O’Donnell jumping across canyons looks absolutely logically compared to exploding nitroglycerin.
In the cave, Annie and Elliott MacGuyver up a bag of Tom’s blood attached to a flare and send it up through the snow above them causing the blood to explode making a big red patch in the middle of the snow. Smart, but totally gross and I doubt these two had the wits about them to make such a contraption. It gets the job done, though, as Monique and Peter easily find the site. Peter drops a note down that says “BANG!” Finally the nitro is going to be used as is intended, but then, aren’t they just risking another avalanche? I mean, has this stuff ever worked as intended.
Well, BANG indeed the nitro gets the job done but it also knocks Annie unconscious. They send down a rope to hoist her up, but, as usual, everything that possibly could go wrong does. Peter suddenly becomes a pansy and can’t even pull his sister’s own weight up with the rope. He then slips and it looks like everyone is going back into the damn crevasse when Wick arrives at the last second and saves them. Now Wick is trying to pull Annie up but they’re still having trouble. I’m not even sure what goes wrong next, but suddenly Elliott, Wick, Annie, Peter, and Monique are dangling from a rope above the now bottomless crevasse. Hmm, five people dangling off a single rope, where have I seen this before? This time Wick is armed with the knife and he cuts himself and Elliott (below him) free. They both plummet to their deaths.
Cut to base camp (the move never even tries to explain how Monique and Peter, carrying an unconscious Annie, get off the damn mountain. Monique and Peter are in Annie’s recovery tent (do you think, maybe, I don’t know, she should have been immediately flown out to the nearest hospital?) Monique kisses Peter. Why, I don’t know. There was never any attraction developed between the two whatsoever. I guess that’s just what boys and girls in movies do. Peter then checks on Annie who starts singing some song. They debate whether it’s a real song or not. Annie says “That was a hell of a thing you did.” Yeah, right, whatever. We cut to a closing shot of a grave marker with all the climbers who died in the past 48 hours on the face of K2. That includes four members of a six person rescue team. One survivor of a three person party. Hmm, what’s wrong with this picture? Peter’s dad sacrificed himself so that his kids could leave. Ratio 1:2. Here, Peter sacrifices four people so that one can live. Ratio: 2:1. What’s wrong with this picture?
Of course, if you took the time to read all this you already know what’s wrong with this picture, motion picture that is. Bad in every sense of the way from dumb plots to dumb acting. While Chris O’Donnell would appear in other films, Vertical Limit marked the end of the good will he had accrued from Scent of a Woman. And rightly so. More painful is that William and Mary alum (and English major!) Scott Glenn claims that Montgomery Wick is one of his best roles of all time. You were in Silence of the Lambs for goodness’ sake! Bah! And the director? Well you probably really like his work right now: he just did the hugely successful Casino Royale. It’s your fault, America.