VERTICAL LIMIT directed by Martin Campbell, written by Robert King and Terry Hayes, produced by Campbell, King and Marcia Nasatir, with Chris O'Donnell, Bill Paxton, Robin Tunney and Scott Glenn. 120 minutes. A Columbia Pictures release. Opens Friday (December 8). Rating: NN
Apparently, people who are undergoing prolonged oxygen deprivation at high altitudes cough more than the actor in the title role in the last act of Camille. This obviously posed interesting problems for the screenwriters of Vertical Limit, who give us scenes in which the dialogue consists entirely of bronchial spasms.
A brother (Chris O'Donnell) and sister (Robin Tunney), estranged since their father's death in a mountain-climbing incident, are reunited at the base of K2.
He's a National Geographic photographer and she's about to lead a documentary team following a rich jerk (Bill Paxton) in a climb up the mountain's south face.
Or maybe it's the north face. This all takes place in an alternative universe in which a mountain climber makes the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Bad things happen, and the brother must lead the rescue mission with K2's ancient mariner, Scott Glenn, who hangs around talking doom.
Vertical Limit, the altitude at which one simply starts to die (24,000 feet, according to the movie), is considerable fun when people are dangling off the sides of the mountain and tumbling down gigantic crevasses.
Campbell, who directed the first of the Pierce Brosnan Bonds, GoldenEye, knows his way around an action sequence.
It's less fun when people are talking, or when the screenwriters are loading on the parallel character crises and forcing us to understand them through the tense emoting of diminutive pretty-boy O'Donnell, the artist formerly known as Robin.
The thriller of choice for the truly acrophobic remains Cliffhanger, which makes more of its vertiginous high-angle shots and has fewer of VL's foreground/background problems.
Here, too many shots allow us to see that the actors are on the set against a blue screen, and not actually in the midst of the splendidly photographed Himalayas.