"Vertical Limit," an adventure-mountaineering thriller from "The Mark of Zorro" director Martin Campbell, opens with a dizzying, whiz-bang sequence set on a sheer cliff in Utah's red-tinted Monument Valley. Peter Garrett (Chris O'Donnell), his sister, Annie (Robin Tunney), and their father, Royce (Stuart Wilson), are happily scaling the mesa, playing a name-that-cheesy-tune singing game, when two of their fellow climbers are suddenly yanked from their precarious perches and plummet to the earth. The three family members are left dangling in the sky, and a traumatic, life-or-death decision must be made.
It's a lean, mean passage that ought to send chills down the spines of acrophobics and extreme-sports fanatics alike. But neither Lawrence nor the screenwriting team of Robert King ("Red Corner") and Terry Hayes ("The Road Warrior") are able to capitalize on the promise of that pulse-accelerating prelude. The filmmakers instead string together a series of tense but considerably less suspenseful plot points and attempt to glue the whole icy mess together with melodrama enacted by stock, one-note characters.
Spectacular vistas help compensate for the film's other failings. Cinematographer David Tattersall ("Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace") delivers right away with sumptuous overhead shots of New Zealand's Southern Alps. The snow-capped mountain range is a stand-in for the Himalayas in Pakistan, where the Garrett siblings reunite after a long separation. It's been three years since that fatal accident, and Peter has retired from his former avocation, opting to become a famous National Geographic photographer. Annie, though, has pursued her passion with a vengeance: She's now a world-renowned climber, recently lauded in a Sports Illustrated cover story.
Bill Paxton is effectively sleazy as the movie's token rich-bastard villain, Elliot Vaughn, a handsome Texas billionaire who's smugly secure in his own superiority and invincibility. Vaughn is traveling with Annie and others to the top of K2 -- the world's second highest mountain peak -- as a promotional effort for his latest venture, an airline company. (Richard Branson, anyone?)
"This is a life statement for me," he boasts, vowing to keep climbing despite the approach of a major snowstorm.
It's not exactly a shock when the tycoon's misplaced bravado results in the disastrous failure of that mission. Eventually, Vaughn, Annie and K2 veteran Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea) are trapped in a deep, cavelike crevasse located at an altitude of 26,000 feet. Peter quickly springs into action, gathering a rescue team that includes Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn), a bearded, sage-like mountain man with a secret grudge; Monique Aubertine (Izabella Scorupco), a supermodel medic; and Cyril and Malcolm Bench (Steve Le Marquand and Ben Mendelsohn, respectively), a pair of fun-loving Aussie hippies.
Avalanches, explosions, a filial reunion and romance (both blossoming and hinted) are among the other elements that "Vertical Horizon" plays with as it moves toward a dramatic dilemma that echoes its exhilarating opening gambit. But nothing that happens in between scales the same heights of accomplishment.