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by: Michael Dequina

With its dizzying depictions of courageous derring-do atop rugged mountain peaks and perilously close to steep cliffs, the trailer to Columbia's Vertical Limit has been leaving many a moviegoer breathless... much like the teaser to the same studio's mountain climbing actioner of seven years ago, Cliffhanger. That's where the similarities end. Cliffhanger was by no means a great film, but it was an exciting thrill ride with no pretense whatsoever as to what it is and what it should be. The fact that the stars of Vertical Limit have gone on record to say that they were attracted to the "relationships" in the piece explains exactly how this film goes wrong--that and the name "Chris O'Donnell" toplining the cast credits.

As displayed in GoldenEye and The Mask of Zorro, director Martin Campbell knows how to stage a suspenseful action scene, and the action sequences in Vertical Limit confirm his talent. The first scene, in which three climbers are left dangling on a single thin, quickly unraveling cord, more than recalls the memorable open of Cliffhanger and holds up fairly well in comparison. In a later scene, a climber makes a deadly slide down a snowy slope, narrowly avoiding a plunge off of a cliff thanks to a fortuitously timed swing of a pickaxe. Other scenes involving the danger that can only come when you combine snow, mountainous terrain, and canisters of nitroglycerin also generate palpable, nail-biting tension.

The problem is that the visceral shocks are in the service of a script that actually includes the stultifying line "There's not gonna be just snow--there'll be ice and rock." Those "relationships" that so enamored the actors? Number one: Peter Garrett (O'Donnell) and his sister, Annie (Robin Tunney). Following in the footsteps of their father, Annie is a famous mountain climber; Peter was also a skilled in the activity, but he gave it up following the incident that led to their father's death. When Annie and cohorts Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea) and wealthy adventure-seeker Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) end up trapped in a crevasse while attempting to scale K2, Peter must put his guilt and self-doubt aside and try to rescue them. Number two: Vaughn and Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn). Wick is a mysterious mountain-dwelling loner who bears a grudge against Vaughn for reasons initially unknown; he joins Peter's rescue teamin hopes of getting a chance to settle the score. As if these relationships weren't hackneyed enough (and to fulfill some unwritten requirement for "romance"), there's the out-of-nowhere attraction that develops between Peter and the fetching French-Canadian nurse (GoldenEye's "good" Bond girl, Izabella Scorupco) who tags along for the mission.

All the overplayed and underthought melodrama is rendered even more ludicrous by the overly earnest cast. Not even Glenn, sporting dirty, stringy locks and one toeless foot, seems to have a grasp on how ridiculous his character or the entire affair is. Whether or not that latter fact is lost on O'Donnell is anyone's guess. One has to wonder why Hollywood continues to cast this stiff block of boredom in headlining roles; to call him "vanilla" is to give that savory flavor an undeserved bad name. His lazy, inexpressive performance here should prove to the suits once and for all that this walking, talking rice cake incarnate does not have what it takes to become a major star. Similarly, Vertical Limit overall does not have what it takes to deserve major holiday hit status.

RATING: ** (out of *****)

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