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Viewer interest cools, dies in 'Vertical Limit'

Trapped in a theater, lost in the dark, moviegoers pray for relief ...

In this story:

Up the mountain -- and creek

Kung fu on K2?

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(CNN) -- "Vertical Limit" tests the outer boundaries of human tolerance and endurance.

But it's not a test of the emotional or physical limitations of the characters on screen in this action/adventure film. They're just battling the elements at 26,000 feet on K2, the world's second-highest mountain peak. No, "Vertical Limit" comes down to a test of viewers' willingness to remain trapped in their seats as this repetitive dreck unfolds.

Of course, the target audience of teen-age boys will probably turn out in droves and be snowed by this special-effects extravaganza. The international market also should be huge, since the action -- not the performers or the plot -- is the centerpiece of this adrenaline-fueled, but oxygen-starved, drivel.

The film opens with a certain amount of promise. Peter Garrett (Chris O'Donnell), his sister Annie (Robin Tunney) and their father Royce (Stuart Wilson), are hundreds of feet up on a typical recreational rock climb in what looks like Utah's Monument Valley. While the family jokes around and plays an impromptu game of "name that tune," it's obvious that Royce is a longtime mountain climber with an immense amount of skill.

Then, in a flash, tragedy: a sudden misstep and the group is swept off the mountain, leaving the trio hanging by the same safety line. With Annie above and his father below, Peter faces an awful choice. At Royce's urging he finally decides that the only way to save his and Annie's life is to cut his father off and lessen the weight on the lifeline. He and his sister live, while their father falls to his death.

Up the mountain -- and creek

Flash forward three years. Annie has become a world-class climber. It's her way of dealing with the guilt over her father's death. Peter has gone in the opposite direction, given up climbing altogether, and is a nature photographer.

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The two have been estranged since the accident, but find themselves both at the base of K2, the most challenging mountain in the world to climb. She's part of a team taking billionaire Elliot Vaughn (Bill Paxton) to the top of the summit. Peter is there on a magazine assignment.

After an awkward reunion with Peter, Annie begins her ascent. Heading the group for the self-centered, self-made entrepreneur is experienced mountain climber Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea). But, once on the mountain and facing bad weather, Tom succumbs to badgering from Elliott, who will not consider failure of any kind. He decides to press on.

Wrong decision. The storm roars in and the climbers find themselves trapped in a cave on the mountainside, beyond what is considered the vertical limit of endurance for extended survival. They are in a certain death zone unless someone saves them.

That would be Peter, who is at the base camp going ballistic trying to organize a rescue effort. In one particularly pathetic scene, during which the audience at a recent screening laughed uncontrollably, the mountaineer-turned-photographer gives a passionate speech to a group of skeptical, would-be rescuers.

O'Donnell, at this point in his career, just doesn't have the screen presence to pull off such a scene. His pleas sound hollow and silly. While he's urging others to take on a reckless rescue attempt, one mountain man yells out the best line in the film. "One-hundred-thousand sperms," he cries, "and you were the fastest one?"

Kung fu on K2?

Entering this hokey mess is a mysterious and eccentric climber, Montgomery Wick, played by Scott Glenn. In what can only be described as an impression of David Carradine's famous kung fu TV character, Glenn takes the lead in this mission impossible up K2.

Sporting long, stringy gray hair and a vacant stare, Wick has his own agenda. He has a score to settle with egotistical Elliot, trapped up there on the mountain with Annie.

Now, this already ludicrous script by Terry Hayes ("Mad Max," 1979, and "Payback," 1999) gets even goofier with one ridiculous death-defying stunt after another. Director Martin Campbell ("The Mask of Zorro," 1998) throws his cast and crew against nature's wrath with never-ending avalanches and ice storms. When that gets repetitive -- and it does -- he adds massive explosions to the mix. Canister after canister of nitroglycerine, carried up the mountain as part of the rescue effort, accidentally go off -- time and again -- as our hapless heroes approach the summit.

Enough already!

The characters, and the pat premise holding them together, are overwhelmed by the magnificent New Zealand landscape, which fills in for Pakistan, the real location of K2.

The visuals are stunning, but that's not enough. They can't make up for this predictable story populated by cardboard-cutout characters. The film needs more rescuing than that.

"Vertical Limit" opens nationwide on Friday, December 8. Rated PG-13.

Vertical Limit

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