Two high-flying twists
'Vertical Limit' scales silly heights; 'Dragon' leaps with intelligence
Action and adventure are staples of movie entertainment, but they take different forms in different parts of the world. Two of this season's most eagerly anticipated films - "Vertical Limit" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" - illustrate some of the contrasts between action-movie styles in the East and West.Skip to next paragraph
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A look at their approaches to wide-screen spectacle says much about current interests in everything from media violence to the role of women in traditionally male genres. A look at their box-office performance - which should become clear in the next week - will say even more about what American moviegoers are expecting for the price of a ticket.
Vertical Limit, directed by Martin Campbell, is a textbook example of the traditional Hollywood epic - big, boisterous, full of heroic sentiments, and populated with cardboard-thin characters. The most interesting character isn't a person at all, but a mountain: the famous K2, second to Everest in height and to no place for daunting danger.
After an opening scene of high-intensity suspense - a routine climb turns disastrous, forcing members of a loving family to make life-or-death decisions in an instant - the movie clambers into its main story, about a K2 expedition by a mix of mountaineering professionals and less-experienced adventurers.
Their trek goes sour when an overambitious climber tries for the summit as a storm approaches. This leads to a worse-case scenario that only Hollywood could dream up. Three climbers are trapped in a snowbound cave. One is seriously ill, another is gravely injured, and the third is a creep who can't be trusted. The only person who can rescue them is the ill woman's brother, who swore off mountaineering after the calamity we saw in the opening scene.
The key to enjoying "Vertical Limit" is to understand that it's only pretending to tell a coherent story. Its real agenda is to jolt us with thrills and spills as frequently as possible, escalating its shock value without worrying whether the shocks make sense. Great care is taken with the visual effects, lending postcard-clear realism to the icy environment. But what happens there becomes more unbelievable, as characters scurry along treacherous trails and leap from peak to crag with the weightless dexterity of characters in a Disney cartoon.
See it if two hours of cinematic surprises are all you're looking for. Skip it if your recipe for a meaningful movie includes token attention to psychology, credibility, and common sense.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed by Taiwanese-American filmmaker Ang Lee, also takes great liberties with traditional realism, but it has a good reason. As the title hints, it's less a naturalistic drama than an extravagant fable that uses action and violence to explore themes of bravery, honesty, loyalty, and the tensions between romance and reality in human affairs. While it has just as much action as "Vertical Limit," it doesn't try to fool us with claims of resemblance to the world we actually live in.