Americans raise themselves up

Attending blockbuster matinees in Beirut is always interesting.

The cinema is generally packed with boys (often developmentally arrested types in their late teens) revved up on Pepsi and popcorn. Their mission, apparently, is to annoy you as much as it is to watch a movie.

These boys are visceral critics. Anyone trying to watch last year’s anemic X-Men at a matinee would have been hard put to hear the last 45 minutes of “dialogue” above the ape noises, stomping feet, and applause apropos of nothing.

One thing that will recommend Vertical Limit to the Lebanese audience is that ­ even in this hostile environment ­ the Ritalin-needy were gripped to the point of attentiveness.

The film tells the story of Peter and Annie Garrett (Chris O’Donnell and Robin Tunney). These mountain-climbing siblings have a falling out when ­ during a rock-climbing accident ­ Peter does as he’s told and allows their mountain-climbing dad to fall to his death in order that he and sis may live.

Some years later Annie is part of an expedition escorting corporate-sleezeball mountaineer Elliott Vaughn (Bill Paxton) to the top of K2 ­ that notorious second-highest peak in the Himalayas.

Vaughn is evil not only because of a questionable first encounter with K2, but because he wants to reach the peak “on schedule,” to correspond with the launch of his new airline.

With such profound hubris ­ the sort with which many Lebanese politicians would be familiar ­ it’s inevitable that a major blizzard blow up. Vaughn and Annie are trapped in a crevice, and Peter (who has sworn off climbing and morphed into a wildlife photographer since he killed his dad) leads a determined effort to rescue the survivors.

You can almost imagine the scene as director Martin Campbell tried to sell the concept of Vertical Limit to his prospective backers: “It’ll be like a cross between, you know, that Sylvester Stallone-hanging-from-the-cliff flick (Cliffhanger) and the Leonardo DiCaprio thing about all those cool kids on the secret island (The Beach). But it’ll have a more mature, puny-man-against-the-awesome-elements feel, like that George Clooney-hurricane-fisherman flick (The Perfect Storm).”

You can virtually see the wealthy, bedazzled backers signing the checks.

Vertical does in fact contain all the elements of a new-improved Perfect Storm.

Instead of the audience’s fear of drowning, Campbell is playing on our vertigo. Rather than drawing on the exclusive community of Massachusetts fishermen, he casts an ensemble of multi-national stereotypes (a la The Beach) to draw in the largest possible international audience.

Obviously, though, the target market is the Anglo-Saxon world. All the principles ­ manifestations of corrupt greed, plucky competence, and (ultimately heroic) guilt ­ are, of course, Yanks. The Brits, naturally, are there for comic relief.

The three or four token brown folks (generally Pakistanis) seem to be there to provide local color, or else those whimsical traits Hollywood is fond of associating with the East ­ corruption, incompetence, carelessness, and wistful philosophizing.

“All men die,” remarks one Pakistani character a few minutes before being blown to smithereens. “It’s what they do before they die that counts.”

Not so oddly, the only somewhat developed “Eastern” character is American too.

Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn), is a hard-as-nails climber who married a local woman and “went native” ­ to the point of pressing hot coals between his palms while chanting Buddhist-like, and generally displaying other deranged behavior.

Glenn is perfectly cast in the role. With his mane of mangy hair and gaunt face he’s a ringer for David Carradine ­ the Yank who played a Chinese Buddhist monk on a road trip in the 1970s-television western Kung Fu.

Vertical Limit is bereft of anything recognizable as “content,” it’s ensemble of characters is mildly offensive in the way that most Hollywood movies are, and the writing and much of the “acting” are laughable. But its goal ­ to elicit dizzying vertigo in the guts of the audience ­ is attained.





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