Vertical Limit

Vertical Limit (2000)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Chris O'Donnell, Robin Tunney, Bill Paxton, Scott Glenn
Extras: Commentary Track, HBO Special, Featurettes, Trailers

There are two types of film fans when it comes to critically-reviled, mountain climber epics that feature impossible midair stunts combined with high altitude helicopter action: those that adore Sylvester Stallone's 'Cliffhanger, ' and those who get their kicks with Chris O'Donnell and Bill Paxton in 'Vertical Limit.' To be honest, I'm a 'Cliffhanger' guy myself and I'll defend it to the death as the reigning champ of snowy cliff scaling flicks. In comparison, 'Vertical Limit' is, at best, an entertaining crapfest that's a cut below standard actioners of this sort.

A climbing pair of siblings (O'Donnell and Robin Tunney), set out to scale a treacherous mountain range with three people, one of which is their father. After a less than tense tumble down a mountain, the climbers are widdled down to the three blood relatives and eventually one of them dies as well. Years later, one is still a successful climbing expert and the other is haunted by the death of the others. Sound familiar? Yep – the same setup as 'Cliffhanger.' Luckily, things go completely haywire for the rest of the film and a very convoluted story centering around a group of in-peril climbers, the two siblings, and tensions between Pakistan and India (I kid you not) winds out of control through unbelievable beat after beat. It avoids the typical established villain so that's a plus and surprisingly turns into a survival tale akin to 'Alive.' However, it's ultimately an exhausting story that I could take another five paragraphs just to sum up. Don't worry, I have no intention of trying.

As the action scenes become more implausible and nitro glycerin rears its explosive head, the movie essentially loses itself to a cluttered minefield of ideas that never feels focused or on point at any critical juncture. The acting is cue-carded excitement to be kind and the supporting cast emotes as convincingly as late night, straight to video features that crowd Starz movie channels and the bottom rack of your local Blockbuster. To be fair, the story is a tired series of excuses to tie one avalanche to the next, but without the tense moral dilemmas and genuine haunted pasts of the aforementioned 'Cliffhanger.' Scott Glenn turns in a nice performance worth noting, but everyone else feels as repetitive as the collapsing snow. Bill Paxton cashes in another throw away career move that feels more in line with the quality of 'Twister' than 'Frailty.' On top of all that I've already mentioned — have you noticed how many other movies I've been referencing? That's because 'Vertical Limit' is entirely composed of scenes, dialogue, and themes from other films. Nothing feels original, nothing feels fresh… everything feels stale and, well, like entertaining crap.

I'm sure many people enjoy this flick… I'm just not one of them. I need more layered characters to care about and 'Vertical Limit' always seemed to come up short.

Luckily, the 1080p video is presented with astounding contrast on this MPEG-2 codec transfer. The source print is practically unscathed for an older film, colors are bold and blues are particuarly vibrant, and the skin tones, even against the bright snow, look realistic throughout. The contrast I mentioned is extremely impressive and only occasionally wavers in the constant barrage of dark shadows and white plains. The black levels are solid, the shadow detail provides wonderful depth, and the lighting seems natural for such a bombastic survival film. There are a few hiccups, but nothing major – there are rare instances of image instability where things flicker slightly, moments of softness in close-ups, and the increased awareness of scenes where actors were added into CG or miniature effects after the initial filming. Most of these issues have more to do with the movie's age than the actual transfer quality, but are still worth mentioning for the videophiles, obsessive compulsives, and purists among you.

The audio seems impressive at first, but quickly lines up with the rest of the film. Brought to semi-life with a PCM uncompressed track, large booms and splintering cracks under rumbling avalanches provide plenty of initial wow factor to the proceedings. However, there just isn't much going on in the soundfield outside of action beats. It's actually a boring mix for all of the running, jumping, climbing, and shouting going on. Dialogue is crisp and there's a great attention to detail in the sound prioritization, but there's nothing memorable that audio fans would reference to their friends.

If you're a fan of the film, don't look at the Blu-ray case. The back cover makes it appear as if you're about to buy a version of the film packed with a ton of special features – unfortunately for you, nothing could be further from the truth. While the rear text hype makes things sound expansive, the truth is this release comes with a commentary, an HBO television show, and a handful of short featurettes that are less than four minutes a pop. The audio commentary features director Martin Campbell and his producer involved in one of the driest commentaries I've heard in a while. Overly technical and completely concerned with explaining camera angles, lighting fixtures, and basic effects work, the two have little to say about character, plot, and the overall design choices throughout the film. Beyond this bland chat, the video featurettes are talking head glory-fests that are in complete love with selling the movie you already picked up. I don't understand why these sorts of promotional supplements aren't on other releases as extended trailers or advertisements for other films you can find on Blu-ray. As it is, it's selling you a car you already paid for. Last but not least, a smattering of low-def trailers fill out the rest of the disc, but none seem worth mentioning.

All in all, unless you're a fan of the film or other ham-fisted, action-oriented melodramas, I would steer clear of 'Vertical Limit.' Do yourself a favor and check out 'Cliffhanger' – which, to me, is better all around. However, fans of 'Vertical Limit' will love the picture quality so it's a current steal of a price on Amazon that will delight them all. I'll throw my money away elsewhere.