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.

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.

The plot centers on a martial-arts warrior who's tired of fighting; an old friend who agrees to help him retire by delivering his sword to a revered master; a young woman who's itching to enter their world of exotic adventure; and a rascally bandit who becomes her unlikely lover.

Early on, the story focuses on unhurried dialogue and character development. When action takes over, it's as stylized and choreographed as a ballet. People leap over walls, fly through the air, and trade sword-blows while perched in the branches of leafy trees. It's as realistic as a dream - and almost as compelling, if you're willing to take it on its own flamboyant terms.

The most unexpected thing about "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is that it comes from director Lee, whose career has followed different pathways. He built his reputation with comedy-dramas like "Pushing Hands" and "The Wedding Banquet," delicate tales about ethnic characters facing universally familiar challenges. Then he switched to more mainstream projects like "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Ice Storm," which gathered large audiences even if they didn't carry the same emotional charge.

His temperament has seemed so literary that many observers thought he was joking about his longtime interest in the martial-arts genre. But he wasn't, and while "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (in Mandarin with English subtitles) isn't as engrossing as his very best films, it combines his innate thoughtfulness with the long-standing conventions of this hyperactive movie tradition.

This blend of intelligence and action may be the film's most impressive trait, but it could also cause problems at the ticket window. The film is being marketed as a breakthrough picture with solid appeal to audiences of every kind: youngsters looking for action, adult men interested in absorbing dialogue, and women who'll appreciate Lee's liking for strong female characters.

This strategy may work - but if it fails, the film's own sophistication may be to blame. Will action-hungry youngsters put up with all that on-screen conversation? Will women sit through long martial-arts scenes just because female characters swing some of the swords? Will older folks embrace Lee's brand of mythic fantasy as readily as the cartoonish craziness of "Vertical Limit"?

"Vertical Limit" has premiered with a much larger bang, thanks to the ability of Columbia Pictures to open it in a huge number of malls and multiplexes.

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" started to build momentum on the film-festival circuit, but even optimists expect it to acquire a mass audience at a somewhat slower pace. While the comparative success of these contrasting films won't give definitive answers as to the state of today's culture, their popularity - or lack of it - will be a revealing sign of what American audiences are looking for at the movies.

Both films, rated PG-13, contain action-movie violence.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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