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Onward and Upward

Few hoary old movie tricks are as pleasing as a really good avalanche, especially one that begins with some poor schnook yelling ”Avalanche!“ just before getting trounced by a curling wall of pure white snow. Happily, there‘s more than one such moment in Vertical Limit, a thriller that, at its best, has the gooney absurdity of an old Saturday-afternoon movie serial.

Nitroglycerine, as all movie lovers know, is the world’s most combustible substance; pity the character who has to carry some on his or her back. Vertical Limit opens with an excellent climbing disaster, but doesn‘t really kick into gear until those nitro canisters are dug out of storage and strapped to the backs of a rescue party bent on blasting free three mountain climbers trapped in an icy crevasse of the Himalayan peak K2. The nitro brigade is out to rescue Annie (Robin Tunney), the world’s greatest female climber, who, despite warnings from her brother, Peter (Chris O‘Donnell), that a storm is coming, has led Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton), an arrogant billionaire, and their guide, Tom (Nicholas Lea), up K2. Peter hasn’t climbed in years for reasons related to a harrowing opening sequence, so he needs help from Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn), the wise old man of the mountain, who has a score to settle with the evil Vaughn.

Typically, movies like this start with a bang, then sink into character-development hell for the first hour as the back story of every character is recited in dreary, anguished minimonologues. Vertical Limit director Martin Campbell (The Mark of Zorro, GoldenEye) has bypassed most of those scenes by assembling a cast that‘s talented enough to build character on the run, enabling the director to get everyone up the mountain as quickly as possible. That, of course, is the name of the game: Most of these folks are doomed to die, and maybe the movie moves as fast as it does because Campbell and his digital-effects wizards are so eager to send their heroes flying over the side of the mountain and into the chasm of death below.

Since action movies are usually designed to make men feel good about being men, it’s a nice surprise that the most memorable action sequences in this one belong to women. At first, the women look to complicate things for Peter‘s rescue plans, particularly Annie, whose refusal to heed her brother’s weather warnings demonstrates that women can be just as bullheaded as arrogant billionaires. Later, trapped in that crevasse, it‘s Annie, not the manly mogul, who gets a chance to save the day. Izabella Scorupco (a Bond girl in GoldenEye) plays a member of the rescue team and has a dazzling hanging-by-a-pinion scene that, in the hands of another director, might have gone to a man. The women in the audience may cheer, while the men wait anxiously -- and in vain -- for Paxton and Lea to get off their duffs and make a move of their own.

For O’Donnell, heroic derring-do isn‘t new ground. He has, after all, played Batman’s sidekick twice, as well as a Three Musketeer. Having finally overcome that baby-faced teen thing (he‘s grown a beard of sorts, too), he might be the ideal action man, one who can conquer a merciless mountain and still find a moment to shed a tear for his fallen comrades. With Scorupco at his side at the end, he could be the long-awaited model for a new millennium’s white knight, the one who isn‘t afraid to share the danger with the more-than-capable woman at his side. Expect James Bond to weep over his next dead girlfriend -- or vice versa.

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