Cliffhanger [1993]

Vertical LimitFinally, a movie for the REI set! For all those mountain-climbing aficionados who devoured Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and similar books (as well as the IMAX film Everest), Vertical Limit attempts to translate man-against-the-mountain adventure into compelling, albeit fictional, drama. And while the climbing action is pretty darn breathtaking, somebody forgot to put the brakes on the cliché machine while penning the screenplay. Two siblings (Chris O'Donnell and Robin Tunney) are mentally scarred by a climbing accident in which their father died to save them. She becomes a famous mountain climber (catch that Sports Illustrated cover?); he never climbs again, and becomes a National Geographic photographer. She agrees to accompany a shady billionaire (Bill Paxton) up the icy carapace of K2, the world's second highest mountain; he just happens to be "in the neighborhood" when she starts. After the requisite argument, she sets out, but an avalanche strands her and the billionaire in some kind of underground cavern, and bad weather forbids a daring rescue. It's up to her determined brother to bring her back, along with a ragtag team of rescuers that includes a French-Canadian babe, two wisecracking Aussies, and a crusty old sage (Scott Glenn) who has a few scores to settle. It's easy to pick out the rest of the story from here (though you probably didn't count on that faulty nitroglycerine, now did you?), but Vertical Limit is less about the hackneyed plot than it is about putting its characters into increasingly dangerous situations and hanging them precariously over various mountainsides. It's a credit to director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye) that the impressive action keeps the film moving along past the bordering-on-absurd plot twists. O'Donnell tosses his mane of fluffy hair admirably, but it's still disheartening to see this once-promising actor turning into a pretty-boy stand-in; only Glenn manages to overcome his character's predictability. Mountaineering enthusiasts will recognize a cameo by world-renowned climber Ed Viesturs, who as an actor proves that he's... a very good mountain climber. --Mark Englehart Into Thin Air Based on Jon Krakauer's bestselling book, Into Thin Air re-creates an ill-fated 1996 expedition to Everest that claimed at least five lives, including those of two world-class climbers. Only 90 minutes in length, the film jumps right into the action at Everest base camp and compresses the two-month trek into just a few days of exhilarating adventure. Periodic voice-overs by Krakauer (Christopher McDonald) provide essential background information and guide us through the invisible, intensifying effects of altitude and stress. Krakauer joined the trip to write an article on the commercialization of Everest, but as conditions on the mountain deteriorate he is forced to focus all his energy on survival. Unfortunately the film fails to really develop any of its characters before thrusting them onto the harrowing face of Everest. As a result, it's difficult to understand the relationships that play out as the group struggles to the summit and back. While the trio of leading actors is solid, only Nat Parker (who plays guide Rob Hall) has enough screen time to develop an interesting, complex character. Peter Horton's portrayal of unconventional guide Scott Fischer is almost hyperbolic and McDonald's Krakauer is stiff and difficult to read. While the film succeeds in creating a palpable sense of agony and suspense, those in search of a more thoughtful, detailed account of the expedition will be better served by reading the book. --Claire Campbell CliffhangerCliffhanger was a 1994 comeback of sorts for action hero Sylvester Stallone, this time thanks to director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2 and Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master) and some spectacularly rugged and vertigo-inducing high-mountain terrain. The opening sequence alone delivers what the title promises, and there's a doozy of an airplane stunt that was later reprised, with modifications, in Air Force One. Stallone, looking as tough and craggy as the mountains themselves, is a rescue climber who finds himself going after a gang of crooks (headed by John Lithgow in his bad-guy mode) who've hijacked a U.S. Treasury plane and crash landed in the Rockies (played by the Italian Dolomites) with millions of bucks. --Jim Emerson

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