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Martin Campbell
Chris O'Donnell, Bill Paxton, Robin Tunney, Scott Glenn, Izabella Scorupco
Robert King, Terry Hayes

Hold Your Breath
Box Office:
Budget $75 million.
Opening weekend $15.507 million on 2307 screens.
Domestic gross $68.473 million.
Rated PG-13 for intense life/death situations and brief strong language.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Surround
English, French

Runtime: 124 min.
Price: $27.96
Release Date: 5/22/2001

• Martin Campbell and Lloyd Phillips Commentary
• HBO Making-Of Special
• Search and Rescue Tales
• National Geographic Channel's Quest for K2
• Link To Website
• Theatrical Trailers
• Talent Files
• Production Notes

Superbit DVD
Score soundtrack

Search Products:

Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Vertical Limit (2000)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

If I ever get the chance to direct a big-budget action flick, remind me not to hire Robin Tunney. Oh, I have nothing against the actress; she seems to be a competent performer, and she certainly is easy on the old peepers. However, it appears that every time she graces a motion picture screen, the movie tanks. A look over her résumé reveals a list of dogs: The Craft maintained a decent cult following, as did Empire Records, but Tunney’s big budget offerings - End of Days and Supernova - have been total duds.

But perhaps I shouldn’t put the blame on Tunney, as co-star Chris O’Donnell hasn’t exactly figured out a way to mint box office gold. Sure, some of his movies have done pretty nicely; Scent of a Woman and Batman Forever both took in solid amounts of cash. However, those put O’Donnell in a supporting capacity, and he hasn’t been able to generate much excitement as a lead actor; from The Chamber to The Bachelor to pretty all the rest, he has yet to appear in a real hit.

Perhaps the presence of these two doomed the 2000 mountain-climbing action flick Vertical Limit to the pile of clunkers, but one might think that they were balanced out by the other participants. VL was directed Martin Campbell, who brought Bond back to prominence with 1995’s GoldenEye and also did well with 1998’s The Mask of Zorro.

In addition, VL featured some powerful supporting actors. Scott Glenn has hits like The Silence of the Lambs, The Hunt for Red October, and The Right Stuff under his belt, and then there’s Bill Paxton. Few actors have shown up in as many mega-hits as has Paxton. Not only did he perform in solid winners like Twister, Apollo 13, Aliens, True Lies and The Terminator, he also made it into the highest grossing film of all-time, 1997’s Titanic.

I guess that magnetism couldn’t overcome the project’s negatives. Despite some positive advance word and a cushy holiday release spot, VL failed to perform at the box office. Its ultimate take of $68 million wasn’t a terrible gross, but considering the movie’s budget of $75 million, the result had to be a disappointment.

Sometimes terrific movies fail to find an audience, so the mediocre gross of VL didn’t necessarily connote a weak project. Or maybe it did. While Vertical Limit isn’t a bad movie, it certainly is a bland and lifeless action flick that failed to distinguish itself from the pack.

At the start of the film, we meet the Garrett family, a mountain-climbing clan. There’s dad Boyce (Stuart Wilson) plus kids Peter (O’Donnell) and Annie (Tunney). Early in the flick, disaster accompanies one climb and Peter has to cut Dad free so he and Annie can survive. Years after the event, the siblings’ relationship has become estranged. Peter no longer climbs, while Annie has become a star in the sport.

Their paths cross when both work on K2, known as the world’s most deadly peak. Peter’s doing research, while Annie’s part of an expedition hired by eccentric mogul Elliott Vaughn (Paxton); he wants to make it to the top of K2 to promote his airline. Inevitably, matters go awry, and after a storm strikes, only three climbers - Annie, Vaughn and guide Tom McLaren (Nicolas Lea) remain alive.

With that group in bad shape, most of the folks still at base camp figure they’re as good as dead, but Peter refuses to give up hope. As such, he cobbles together a team of his own to find and rescue the survivors. Sexy Monique (Izabella Scorupco) wants to collect a big payday offered by Vaughn’s assistant, while two crazy Aussie brothers, Cyril and Malcolm Bench (Steve Le Marquand and Ben Mendelsohn) just want a wild experience. Aziz (Augie Davis) comes along because he hopes his brother has survived the storm, while legendary mountain man Montgomery Wick (Glenn) has some dark reasons of his own.

As the team tries to locate and save the survivors, they encounter a ridiculous number of obstacles, all of which endanger the participants. Who’ll make it back and who won’t? I’ll leave those details out of my review; suffice it to say that few can survive… the vertical limit!

I suppose that mountain climbing may still produce a good movie someday, but between Cliffhanger and VL, no one’s yet come close. At least VL took the more realistic approach. While it clearly takes many liberties with the subject, it comes across as less campy and absurd when compared to the 1993 Sylvester Stallone vehicle; that one stamped an action/robbery plot onto its setting. VL provides an outlandishly improbable set of obstacles for its protagonists and also ignores a number of physical laws, but I preferred the basic concept in which a rescue makes up the story, not some silly cops and robbers deal.

Nonetheless, I didn’t care much for VL, and it still suffers from a lot of the problems that plagued Cliffhanger. Both movies lacked character and they felt like little more than a compendium in stunts in search of some humanity. None of VL participants seemed like full-fledged people. Glenn and Paxton add some spark to their roles, but both are underwritten and generally uncompelling, while Tunney and O’Donnell failed to make an impact with their characters. Both should really be haunted by their past, but we never sense that as they stomp through their lives.

Director Campbell doesn’t do much to elaborate on any of these elements either. The emphasis is firmly on action, action, action, with little time for any niceties such as plot or character. Admittedly, many of the action sequences are very well-executed and exciting, and the movie occasionally shows some signs of life. However, the generally anonymous tone undermines these moments and makes them less potent than they could have been.

Some surprisingly weak visual effects work also took me out of the story. When done right, computer generated imagery can provide a seamless and intensely realistic setting for a film. For example, as I watched Cast Away, I almost never had the slightest clue I saw anything other than real footage; I was shocked to learn how much of the movie featured computer graphics.

No such surprise accompanied my viewing of Vertical Limit. Instead, I was appalled to see how fake looking so much of the film was. Most of the time when we see our actors on cliffs, it seems dreadfully obvious that they’re on soundstages and digital footage has been inserted around them. Even close-ups that feature no computer backgrounds take on this artificial appearance, and these aspects of the movie made it difficult for me to take it seriously. Granted, I know that the production wouldn’t risk the lives of its actors by putting them on the sides of mountains, but well-integrated effects would at least make me suspend my disbelief; the weak images of VL led me to continually remember that I was watching a movie.

I can’t say I truly disliked the time I spent with Vertical Limit, as the film had enough exciting set pieces to make it moderately entertaining at times. However, this was at best a mediocre action flick that never did much to rise to a higher level. While some parts of it came across well, too much of it seemed bland and pedestrian; little about the movie stood out from the crowd.

The DVD Grades: Picture A / Audio A / Bonus B

Vertical Limit appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. All in all, the movie portrayed a terrific picture with almost no problems on display.

Sharpness looked virtually perfect at all times. Never did I see any scenes that betrayed even minor soft or hazy qualities. From start to finish, the movie remained crisp and well-defined. Moiré effects and jagged edges created no concerns, and print flaws were nearly non-existent. I discerned a couple speckles and grit, and there was one streak at the start of the movie, but that was it; otherwise the film appeared wonderfully clean and fresh.

Colors appeared exceedingly vibrant and lively throughout the film. Obviously the film showed a lot of white due to all of the snow, but quite a lot of color came through via the bright outfits worn by the climbers. The DVD replicated these with excellent brightness and boldness and made them seem absolutely gorgeous. Black levels seemed rich and deep, and shadow detail was appropriately heavy but never excessively dense. Ultimately, Vertical Limit offered an exemplary visual experience.

Also terrific was the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. One expects a ferocious atmosphere from this kind of wild action film, and the movie’s mix did not disappoint me. The soundfield seemed terrifically active from start to finish. All five speakers got a fine workout as the majority of the flick showed excellent usage from all elements. Sounds were well-localized and they moved neatly across the channels. Quite a lot of the movie really offered encompassing audio that made the movie more engrossing than it otherwise might have been. The ambience of the mountain was natural and distinctive - the windiness was especially believable - and the louder sequences really took off into the stratosphere. In addition to the obvious calamities like avalanches, helicopter sequences came across as vivid and exciting; the scenes in which choppers threaten participants were made more compelling due to the excellent sound design.

Audio quality appeared similarly positive. Dialogue consistently seemed natural and accurate; although many lines must have been looped, they were well-integrated into the action, and I discerned no problems related to edginess or intelligibility. Music was bright and vibrant and showed fine dynamic range; I thought the score displayed a nicely punchy and aggressive tone that fit the film.

Considering the nature of the movie, effects were the most important portions of the mix, and they appeared wonderfully well-reproduced. These elements always came across as accurate and realistic but they were also appropriately hyper-accentuated. Clarity seemed great, and low end was rich and deep. Bass response throughout the film really ratcheted up the action another notch, as the requisite scenes provided a serious punch. Ultimately, Vertical Limit offered an excellent auditory experience that will give your system a nice test.

Packed onto this DVD are a bunch of good extras. First up is a running audio commentary from director Martin Campbell and executive producer Lloyd Phillips. The two were recorded together for this screen-specific affair.

I’ve listened to a lot of audio commentaries over the years, and when I find a good one, I truly enjoy it. On those occasions, I’m totally engrossed in the piece and find myself upset when it ends. On the other hand, a really bad track can be an endurance test; when the piece finishes, I almost dread the notion of listening to another one.

Then there are the more ordinary commentaries. Some of these have no obvious flaws; on the surface they include a lot of information and should be fairly stimulating. However, despite no apparent problems, I find myself distracted as I listen to them. I think about what I need to do the next day or wonder about other parts of my life and have trouble focusing on the material at hand.

The audio commentary for Vertical Limit fell into that last category. On the positive side, this was a chatty piece as both men provided a lot of information. Campbell dominated the program and gave a lot of notes about the film. Very few empty spaces cropped up during the commentary and many details were indicated.

So why was I so bored? While Campbell and Phillips went over a great deal of information, not a lot of it seemed all that interesting. Much of the piece sticks with the usual happy talk about how great everyone was, and we also hear scads about the technical issues related to the making of VL. To be fair, I can’t really fault the participants for my boredom, but that’s how I felt. The commentary provided a continuous look at the movie, but I didn’t feel I learned much of interest about the process.

More interesting were the slew of video programs found on the DVD. First we find an HBO Making of special about Vertical Limit. Called “Surviving the Limit”, this piece lasts for 24 minutes and covers a variety of aspects of the production. We hear from director Campbell and producer Phillips plus the main actors and some real-life climbers plus we see a myriad of movie clips and some shots from the set. Not surprisingly, the program is a puffy and superficial look at the making of the movie, and you won’t learn a great deal of information about the film’s creation. However, I thought it was a generally enjoyable show, mainly because of some fine material from the set. In addition, actresses Tunney and Scorupco looked really sexy, so I was happy to see them.

Greater depth appeared in Search and Rescue Tales, a section with eight featurettes about the making of VL. These cover a nice mix of topics. We learn about the flick’s effects, climbing in general, the actors’ training, avalanche filming, “the death zone”, specific climbers, and climbing-related illnesses and drugs; the final snippet includes production credits and features a few more actor interviews. Each of the featurettes lasts between 75 seconds and seven minutes 10 seconds for a total of 32 minutes and 25 second worth of material.

All in all, these clips added a lot of depth to the experience. Though they don’t sum up to a thorough examination of the movie, they create a nice overview of the hottest topics. The variety of the programs is what makes them best, as we don’t get stuck on one subject or another; all different aspects of creating the film crop and get attention. We also learn some good basics of the facts behind the story, and these help put the flick in perspective. My only problem with the “Tales” stemmed from the lack of a “View All” option; it was annoying to have to return to the menu after each featurette.

More factual material appeared during a National Geographic Channel special called The Quest For K2. This 12 minutes and 50 second program takes a look at the first Americans to make it to the top of the mountain in a 1978 expedition. The show’s a bit short but it gave us a good examination of the reality related to K2.

A few more ordinary extras round out the DVD. We get Filmographies for director Campbell, producer Phillips, and actors O’Donnell, Paxton, Tunney and Glenn. Some decent text production notes appear in the DVD’s booklet, and we also find trailers for Limit plus Cliffhanger, Charliesangels, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

In Vertical Limit, we find an intermittently exciting but generally drab and lifeless action film. The subject matter certainly has a lot of potential, and some set pieces occasionally lived up to those possibilities, but too much of the movie was brought down to earth by flat characters and other lackluster elements. However, the DVD itself was a clear winner. Both picture and sound quality were outstanding, and though the supplements weren’t quite that terrific, I still found a solid little roster of extras. Ultimately, Vertical Limit was a flawed but periodically watchable action flick that may deserve a look by fans of the genre; the high quality of the DVD makes it worth a rental.

To rate this film go to the review of VERTICAL LIMIT: Superbit.