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Martin Campbell
Chris O'Donnell, Bill Paxton, Robin Tunney, Scott Glenn, Izabella Scorupco
Robert King, Terry Hayes

Hold Your Breath
Box Office:
Budget $75 million.
Opening weekend $15.507 million on 2307 screens.
Domestic gross $68.473 million.
Rated PG-13 for intense life/death situations and brief strong language.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English DTS 5.1
French Dolby Surround
English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Thai, Korean, Chinese

Runtime: 124 min.
Price: $27.96
Release Date: 3/19/2002

• None

Superbit DVD
Score soundtrack

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Vertical Limit: Superbit (2000)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

If I ever get the chance to direct a big-budget action flick, remind me not to hire Robin Tunney. Oh, I have nothing against the actress; she seems to be a competent performer, and she certainly can look easy on the old peepers. However, it appears that every time she graces a motion picture screen, the movie tanks. A look over her résumé reveals a list of dogs: The Craft maintained a decent cult following, as did Empire Records, but Tunney’s big budget offerings - End of Days and Supernova - have been total duds.

But perhaps I shouldn’t put the blame on Tunney, as co-star Chris O’Donnell hasn’t exactly figured out a way to mint box office gold. Sure, some of his movies have done pretty nicely; Scent of a Woman and Batman Forever both took in solid amounts of cash. However, those put O’Donnell in a supporting capacity, and he hasn’t been able to generate much excitement as a lead actor; from The Chamber to The Bachelor to pretty much all the rest, he has yet to star in a real hit.

Perhaps the presence of these two doomed the 2000 mountain-climbing action flick Vertical Limit, but one might think that they were balanced out by the other participants. Limit was directed Martin Campbell, who brought Bond back to prominence with 1995’s GoldenEye and also did well with 1998’s Mask of Zorro.

In addition, Limit featured some powerful supporting actors. Scott Glenn has hits like The Silence of the Lambs, The Hunt for Red October, and The Right Stuff under his belt, and then there’s Bill Paxton. Few actors have shown up in as many mega-hits as has Paxton. Not only did he perform in solid winners like Twister, Apollo 13, Aliens, True Lies and The Terminator, he also made it into the highest grossing film of all-time, 1997’s Titanic!

I guess that magnetism couldn’t overcome Limit’s negatives. Despite some positive advance word and a cushy holiday release spot, the film failed to perform at the box office. Its ultimate take of $68 million wasn’t a terrible gross, but considering the movie’s budget of $75 million, the result had to be a disappointment.

Sometimes terrific movies fail to find an audience, so the mediocre gross of Limit didn’t necessarily connote a weak project. Or maybe it did. While Vertical Limit isn’t a bad movie, it certainly is a bland and lifeless action flick that failed to distinguish itself from the pack.

At the start of the film, we meet the Garrett family, a mountain-climbing clan. There’s dad Boyce (Stuart Wilson) plus kids Peter (O’Donnell) and Annie (Tunney). Early in the flick, disaster accompanies one climb and Peter has to cut Dad free so he and Annie can survive. Years after the event, the siblings’ relationship has become estranged. Peter no longer climbs, while Annie has become a star in the sport.

Their paths cross when both work on K2, known as the world’s most deadly peak. Peter’s doing research, while Annie’s part of an expedition hired by eccentric mogul Elliott Vaughn (Paxton); he wants to make it to the top of K2 to promote his airline. Inevitably, matters go awry, and after a storm strikes, only three climbers - Annie, Vaughn and guide Tom McLaren (Nicolas Lea) remain alive.

With that group in bad shape, most of the folks still at base camp figure they’re as good as dead, but Peter refuses to give up hope. As such, he cobbles together a team of his own to find and rescue the survivors. Sexy Monique (Izabella Scorupco) wants to collect a big payday offered by Vaughn’s assistant, while two crazy Aussie brothers, Cyril and Malcolm Bench (Steve Le Marquand and Ben Mendelsohn) just want a wild experience. Aziz (Augie Davis) comes along because he hopes a relative has survived the storm, while legendary mountain man Montgomery Wick (Glenn) has some dark reasons of his own to come along for the ride.

As the team tries to locate and save the survivors, they encounter a ridiculous number of obstacles, all of which endanger the participants. Who’ll make it back and who won’t? I’ll leave those details out of my review; suffice it to say that few can survive… the vertical limit!

I suppose that mountain climbing may still produce a good movie someday, but between Cliffhanger, no one’s yet come close. At least Limit took the more realistic approach. While it clearly takes many liberties with the subject, it comes across as less campy and absurd when compared to the 1993 Sylvester Stallone vehicle; that one stamped an action/robbery plot onto its setting. Limit provides an outlandishly improbable set of obstacles for its protagonists and also ignores a number of physical laws, but I preferred the basic concept in which a rescue generates, not some silly cops and robbers deal.

Nonetheless, I didn’t care much for Limit, and it still suffers from a lot of the problems that plagued Cliffhanger. Both movies lacked character and they felt like little more than a compendium in stunts in search of some humanity. None of Limit participants seemed like full-fledged people. Glenn and Paxton add some spark to their roles, but both are underwritten and generally uncompelling, while Tunney and O’Donnell failed to make an impact with their characters. Both should really be haunted by their tragic past, but we never sense that as they stomp through their lives.

Director Campbell doesn’t do much to elaborate on any of these elements either. The emphasis is firmly on action, action, action, with little time for any niceties such as plot or character. Admittedly, many of the action sequences are very well-executed and exciting, and the movie occasionally shows some signs of life. However, the generally anonymous tone undermines these moments and makes them less potent than they could have been.

Some surprisingly weak visual effects work also took me out of the story. When done right, computer generated imagery can provide a seamless and intensely realistic setting for a film. For example, as I watched Cast Away, I almost never had the slightest clue I saw anything other than real footage; I was shocked to learn how much of the movie featured computer graphics.

No such surprise accompanied my viewing of Vertical Limit. Instead, I was appalled to see how fake looking so much of the film was. Most of the time when we see our actors on cliffs, it seems dreadfully obvious that they’re on soundstages and digital footage has been inserted around them. Even close-ups that feature no computer backgrounds take on this artificial appearance, and these aspects of the movie made it difficult for me to take it seriously. Granted, I know that the production wouldn’t risk the lives of its actors by putting them on the sides of mountains, but well-integrated effects would at least make me suspend my disbelief; the weak images of Limit led me to continually remember that I was watching a movie.

I can’t say I truly disliked the time I spent with Vertical Limit, as the film had enough exciting set pieces to make it moderately entertaining at times. However, this was at best a mediocre action flick that never did much to rise to a higher level. While some parts of it came across well, too much of it seemed bland and pedestrian; little about the movie stood out from the crowd.

The DVD Grades: Picture A / Audio A / Bonus F

Vertical Limit appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. This disc represented the second DVD release of Vertical Limit. The original DVD came out a scant 10 months prior to this release and differs from this one due to its inclusion of a slew of extras.

Although others and I found the original DVD to look and sound terrific, apparently the good folks at Columbia-Tristar (CTS) thought they could improve upon this presentation. As such, Vertical Limit - as well as some other films - has been reissued as part of their “Superbit” collection. According to the booklet that accompanied the DVD, this line offers “the highest standard for picture and sound available on DVD” with “higher bit rate for better picture resolution than standard DVD”.

Those are some lofty goals - will the DVDs reach them? While I can’t argue that the Superbit edition doesn’t look terrific, I didn’t see anything about it that represented a significant improvement over the original disc.

Sharpness looked virtually perfect at all times. Never did I see any scenes that betrayed even minor soft or hazy qualities. From start to finish, the movie remained crisp and well-defined. Moiré effects and jagged edges created no concerns, and print flaws were nearly non-existent. I discerned a couple speckles and grit, but that was it; otherwise the film appeared wonderfully clean and fresh.

Colors appeared exceedingly vibrant and lively throughout the film. Obviously the film showed a lot of white due to all of the snow, but quite a lot of color came through via the bright outfits worn by the climbers. The DVD replicated these with excellent brightness and boldness and made them seem absolutely gorgeous. Black levels seemed rich and deep, and shadow detail was appropriately heavy but never excessively dense. Ultimately, Vertical Limit offered an exemplary visual experience.

So how did this differ from the original disc? Not by much. The Superbit edition seemed slightly tighter, and it produced a marginally more vivid image, but these improvements appeared exceedingly minor. The old DVD certainly looked great; there was only so much room for growth, so by default, the new one couldn’t outdo it too terrifically.

A potentially greater difference stemmed from the soundtracks found on the Superbit version of Vertical Limit. While the original disc included only a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, the Superbit package provided that track as well as DTS 5.1 audio. I’ll address their similarities and differences after I offer a general critique of the soundtrack.

One expects a ferocious atmosphere from this kind of wild action film, and the movie’s mix did not disappoint me. The soundfield seemed terrifically active from start to finish. All five speakers got a fine workout as the majority of the flick showed excellent usage from all elements. Sounds were well-localized and they moved neatly across the channels. Quite a lot of the movie really offered encompassing audio that made the movie more engrossing than it otherwise might have been. The ambience of the mountain was natural and distinctive - the windiness was especially believable - and the louder sequences really took off into the stratosphere. In addition to the obvious calamities like avalanches, helicopter sequences came across as vivid and exciting; the scenes in which choppers threaten participants were made more compelling due to the excellent sound design.

Audio quality appeared similarly positive. Dialogue consistently seemed natural and accurate; although many lines must have been looped, they were well-integrated into the action, and I discerned no problems related to edginess or intelligibility. Music was bright and vibrant and showed fine dynamic range; I thought the score displayed a nicely punchy and aggressive tone that fit the film.

Considering the nature of the movie, effects were the most important portions of the mix, and they appeared wonderfully well reproduced. These elements always came across as accurate and realistic but they were also appropriately hyper-accentuated. Clarity seemed great, and low end was rich and deep. Bass response throughout the film really ratcheted up the action another notch, as the requisite scenes provided a serious punch. Ultimately, Vertical Limit offered an excellent auditory experience that will give your system a nice test.

So what differences did I hear between the DTS and Dolby soundtracks? Not many, but I gave the nod to the DTS version. It seemed a little tighter and richer than the Dolby mix, and it showed slightly better blending and integration. Again, the improvements were minor, but the DTS track appeared a wee bit more effective.

In terms of picture and sound, the Superbit DVD of Vertical Limit appeared a little stronger. Where the old disc won, however, related to extras. It included a nice mix of supplements, whereas the Superbit package included absolutely none.

I’m happy to report that it looks like Vertical Limit will be one of the last featureless Superbit titles. Starting with The Patriot, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man in May, CTS will release “Superbit Deluxe” DVDs; these will include the same potential improvements in picture and sound quality as well as a variety of supplements.

Until then, however, fans have to decide if the visual and auditory improvements offered by the bare-bones Superbit releases make the discs worthwhile. If you like Vertical Limit, never owned the original DVD, and don’t care about extras, then by all means, pick up a copy of the Superbit version. Unlike many other Superbit discs, the two retail for the same price, and the modest superiority of the new one’s picture and sound make it the one to own for those who have no interest in the supplements.

However, if you do like extras, then get the old disc. There’s enough good material on it to merit your attention. And for those who already own the original DVD, I see no reason to bother with the Superbit one. Yes, it offers slightly improved picture and sound, but the differences seem small enough that they don’t warrant a new purchase.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.1875 Stars Number of Votes: 16
6 3:
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