The first thing to understand about Vertical Limit is it's not a climbing movie. Yes, the actors do some climbing, but it's in the movie primarily as a means to an end. If you're expecting to pick up climbing tips, you'll be disappointed. Having said that, it's a damn good action flick.
Vertical Limit has your basic thud and blunder plot: a bunch of people tackle the world's toughest mountain, K2, in the face of a real nasty storm. They get into trouble. The determined older brother of a woman on the mountain, conveniently at the base camp because he was just "in the neighbourhood," leads an expedition to rescue his little sister. Some people make it, some don't. There's the requisite explosions, beautiful people who are invincible and never sweat, your standard danger-ridden chopper scenes and even a token love interest. What it also has to buoy it along and make it a darn good slightly-over-two-hours are plot twists, breathtaking footage, some fabulous one-liners, a satisfactory surprising ending and one heck of a kickass soundtrack that takes the action from "exciting" to an "ohmygodohmygodohmyGOD!"
No one plays the sensitive yet rugged blue-eyed older brother better than the dreamy Chris O'Donnell, and in Vertical Limit he surpasses himself with another locked-jaw-teary-eyed performance. Robin Tunney breaks the mold as the sweet, wide-eyed sister with a core of steel and Bill Paxton checks in for the unfamiliar role of the billionaire the audience hates easily and enthusiastically. Scott Glenn does solid justice to the reluctant hero who comes out of self-imposed exile and eccentricity to be the key to the expedition's success, and fans of the X-Files' Alex Krycek will be pleased to see actor Nicolas Lea pop up for a minimalist role, though less pleased with his character's outcome.
Okay, so it's a little formulaic. What it isn't surprisingly, is predictable. Vertical Limit opens with a jaw-dropping sequence that puts Cliffhanger to shame, and proceeds to surprise you at every turn. People die--when you least expect them to. They fall off cliffs when there's no cliff to be seen. The team member who gets all the sexy scrapes and bruises is the foxy French-Canadian chick. Nitroglycerine explodes without anyone detonating it. There are pregnant pauses and lingering looks in the weirdest moments, the most striking of these centered around the forcible straightening of aforementioned foxy chick's dislocated finger. There's a pair of Australian brothers who toss out some real gems for comic relief, there are tears without excess emotion and there's the most practical use of Morse code seen in a movie since the Hunt for Red October. And finally, what could be better than Chris O'Donnell running around all dishevelled and intense on a mountain with five o'clock shadow? Why, that's right, Chris O'Donnell all dishevelled and intense flying through the air towards the mountain with a pickaxe in each hand and emerging from the subsequent nose-shattering impact with the five o'clock shadow--and nose--perfectly intact. Ahhhh, Hollywood.
Final word? Come for the action. Stay because you're riveted to your seat and you're afraid of what you might miss if you leave. Between the avalanches, explosions and screams, you'll be deafened by the sound of your pounding heart.