Vertical Limit has a great, pulse-pounding opener, but it's largely downhill from there. The movie begins with Peter and Annie (Chris O'Donnell and Robin Tunney) scaling a sheer cliff with their father and some other climbers. When one man slips, it causes a chain reaction amongst the thrillseekers, who are all tied together. Their moorings break away from the mountainside one by one until they're all left hanging by a single support, which is, of course, slipping fast. The father orders Peter to cut him loose, as the support won't hold all their weight. After much screaming on both sides, Peter listens to his dad and cuts the rope, saving himself and his sister, but sending the old man plummeting to his rocky death.
This brief opener sets the stage effectively as we fast forward a few years later. Peter is a guilt-ridden photographer who has given up climbing, while his sister Annie excels at the sport and continues to push herself. The two aren't as close as they were before, but they are still civil to one another. In a movie that's mostly action and stunts, the relationship between the two is one of the more interesting elements that stands out. Hollywood has done the romantic couple thing to death, so seeing a movie where the two stars are brother and sister is nice, if only for a change of pace.
The body of the action starts once disaster strikes. Annie and a small team of climbers, including resident sonofabitch Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton), are trekking up a mountain as a promotional for the maiden flight of a new airline. But despite warnings that dangerous weather is moving in on them, Vaughn pushes the group forward. His foolishness catches everyone in the middle of the storm, and an avalanche traps them in a cave where dehydration and the cold threaten to kill them quickly. When Peter gets wind of what has happened, he joins a rescue team to save his sister.
The rescue team is composed of all the token players you would expect: Chris O'Donnell, a chick, an experienced old man, an Indian guy clearly on the expendable list from the get-go, and a pair of slovenly English brothers meant to add comic relief. Despite the stereotypical casting, some of it works. The brothers, for example, manage to deliver some laughs, and even reinforce the theme of family. The old man, a nutjob named Montgomery Wick, adds tension because he has a grudge against Vaughn, but he's mostly dramatic overkill: he does "terribly mysterious things" like appearing at a party, predicting doom, and suddenly vanishing.
One of the most disappointing things about the conclusion is the use of the tired old cliche "if I kill a murderer, then I am no better than the murderer." This played out notion of heroic honor is especially annoying when the hero ends up killing the villain anyhow, yet justifies it by claiming self-defense or another similar motive. We need more movies with dark, merciless heroes like The Crow.
Despite trying to have a deeper story about redemption and family (which still manages to succeed to some degree), Vertical Limit ultimately succumbs to the pitfalls of disaster films before it. Like The Perfect Storm, this movie is filled with characters who don't respect nature and make a habit of taking the path of least common sense. And like Twister, the action gets redundant. There are essentially three things that keep going wrong: someone falls, an avalanche happens, or the nitroglycerine the rescue team is carrying blows up. These things recur enough that they get tiresome, and even humorous on occasion. In one instance, all three disasters are combined (the nitro explodes, causes an avalanche, and someone is knocked off a cliff), but there's still not enough variation on the action to make every scene engaging.
Vertical Limit's capable stars and death-defying settings balance out its redundancy and lack of anything terribly original, firmly placing the movie in the middle-ground of cinematic limbo: it's not a particularly must-see action movie, but anyone looking for a light piece of entertainment could easily do worse.
Rating: 5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)