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When I was reading Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air about a decade ago, I kept telling myself that the one thing the story needed was a villain, and that villain needed to based on Richard Branson. Fast-forward a few years later, Vertical Limit hits theaters, and I discover someone has stolen my idea. Bastards.
Peter (Chris O'Donnell) and Annie Garrett (Robin Tunney) have been estranged since a tragic climbing accident claimed the life of their father three years earlier. Peter, now a wildlife photographer for National Geographic, has given up climbing. Annie, however, did not give up the sport, and has since become famous for scaling the Eiger faster than any female climber. Annie is hired by billionaire Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) to lead his team to the summit of Pakistan's K2, where Vaughn plans to film an ad (read: stage a publicity stunt) for his new airline. But as the climbers are midway to the summit, a storm develops around the mountain, an avalanche wipes out much of the team, and Annie and Vaughn become trapped in a crevice. Peter mounts a rescue mission to save his sister, but he must rely on the climbing skills of an eccentric recluse named Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn) to get him up the mountain, and Wick's motives for making the journey aren't very altruistic.
Vertical Limit is a completely disposable action flick. I think I've seen it three or four times now, and the returns diminish with each viewing. I used to think it was a fairly good piece of escapist fare, while now I view it is merely an okay piece of escapist fare. Hopefully this won't sound as if I'm damning it with faint praise, but it's yet another example of the sort of flick that is entertaining enough as it unfolds, but is easily forgotten once it's over.
Doing his best to keep the movie's head above water is director Martin Campbell, who certainly knows his way around large-scale stunts and action set-pieces. The story and characters leave a little to be desired, but Campbell, the only director who can claim to have helped rejuvenate the Bond franchise twice, does what he can to make up for this by expertly--and at times excitingly--staging the action, and by keeping the pace up. On top of that, Campbell and cinematographer David Tattersall quite often make the movie a pleasure to look at; the mountains of New Zealand stand in for Pakistan here, and many of the shots are simply gorgeous. (Although the majority of the movie was shot in Kiwiville, some Second Unit footage was shot in Pakistan, and the opening sequence was filmed in Utah). And as I've stated before, no movie starring Izabella Scorupco can be all bad.
Repeated viewings reveal just how repetitive the story is, which is undoubtedly a consequence of the setting. You set an action-rescue flick on a mountain, there's little you can do but stage avalanches and dangle people off the sides of cliffs. (The filmmakers here go one better and combine the two dangers in one sequence, but the scene's length works against its effectiveness.) As accomplished as such sequences may be, they do get old after a while. And the writers fall back on one of the hoariest (to say nothing of laziest) of screenwriting conventions: a taut, life-threatening/life-changing situation early in the movie is repeated at the end. The casting also proves to be somewhat problematic. O'Donnell and Tunney don't have the presence or personality to generate sympathy or empathy for their thinly-drawn characters. Paxton's not bad, but he's saddled with a stock character; on top of that, I generally find Paxton hard to dislike, and in this case that's a detriment, although I can't fault him for it. Glenn easily gives the best performance, which is something of an amazing feat given just how silly his character is.
I'll admit that reviewing all of these completely disposable action flicks has started to make me sound like a broken record, but it's not my fault the studios are flooding the Blu-ray market with decidedly average material. Hell, I want a next-gen release of Raiders just as much as the next guy, but at the moment that doesn't seem to be in the cards, so I guess we'll just have to grin and bear it.
Vertical Limit has always looked fantastic on disc, and this Blu-ray version is no exception. The 1.85:1 transfer is generally fantastic, although one minor flaw mars it to a slight degree. Colors, fleshtones, depth and detail are excellent. The shades of the various climbers' jackets really pop against the white landscapes, and the crags of the mountains are visible from the foreground on into the distant horizon. Now for the bad: a couple of shots of the sky can be a little noisy. Otherwise its aces, so much so that many of the effects now look incredibly cheesy (especially during the opening sequence), and the artificial snow looks even more artificial.
Audio comes in your choice of Dolby Digital and uncompressed PCM 5.1 tracks. The sound design is front-heavy until the action heats up, at which point the entire soundstage is actively engaged; surround action during these moments is immersive and well-integrated (the helicopter drop-off scene still sounds incredible). There's also some very good deep bass action. As good as the Dolby track is, the PCM track is wider, richer, smoother and more natural sounding. Unfortunately, there's an uneven quality to the dialogue; while the majority of it sounds very good, there are a few instances when it exhibits a slightly flat, ADR-type quality. A French Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also included, as are English, French, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai subtitles.
Roughly half of the extras from the SD release have been ported over here. The trailer, production notes, talent files, and National Geographic special aren't included, but here's what you do get:
The commentary by director Martin Campbell and producer Lloyd Phillips is a little dry. You won't find much in the way of story or character discussion, but that's not surprising. If, however, you're looking for technical minutiae, this will fit the bill nicely.
The HBO Special: "Surviving the Limit" (24 minutes) is your typically fluffy HBO behind-the-scenes promo piece.
Search and Rescue Tales (26 minutes total) is a series of six featurettes covering various aspects of production. There were actually eight of these on the SD disc; why the other two were dropped is beyond me.
What else can I say? Vertical Limit is a technically proficient, well-mounted C-grade flick. It's not a bad way to kill time, but I think only die-hard fans will want to make it a permanent addition to their collections.