When his estranged sister gets trapped in a crevasse during an avalanche on K2, it's up to Boy Wonder Chris O'Donnell to lead a team up the most challenging mountain to rescue her.
When a climbing accident kills the father of Peter and Annie Garrett (O'Donnell and Robin Tunney), the two become estranged. They cross paths three years later, and Peter soon finds out Annie's team is stranded up the mountain at 26,000 feet -- a death zone above the ''vertical limit'' of endurance. A rescue ensues. Despite some earnest subplots, the cookie-cutter story takes a backseat to the action -- which, let's face it, is the reason to see this film anyway. That said, making Peter and Annie siblings rather than lovers is a refreshing turn, saving us from seeing anyone make out on the mountain to keep from freezing to death.
O'Donnell, the good Catholic boy whose sincerity worked in ''Scent of a Woman'' but got grating by ''Batman and Robin,'' does more of the same here. Gritting his teeth with lines like ''I won't let my sister die,'' O'Donnell is at least credited for trying another genre (minus the codpiece), taking Bill Paxton's (''Twister'') lead as an Action Star Against Nature. But it's time we see his baby face play evil. Tunney and Paxton, appearing as a shady millionaire, have credible scenes in the ice cave. Scott Glenn, as an eccentric climber with mourning (and revenge) on his mind, is a standout.
British director Martin Campbell, whose last two films, ''GoldenEye'' and ''The Mask of Zorro,'' were both solid critical and commercial hits, knows how to pace an action film. From the shaking accident that begins the film to the rescue itself, ''Vertical Limit'' is one situation running seamlessly to another. Just one big complaint: A couple non-mountain scenes were obviously shot in front of a blue screen, bringing any remaining traces of the film's believability to a grinding halt at times.
As long as you're not expecting much, ''Vertical Limit'' should fill your holiday action void nicely.