Chris O''Donnell, emoting horror at the death of his father, is one of the most uproarious sights in this year''s cinema. In the opening of Vertical Limit, Peter (O''Donnell), his father and his sister Annie (Robin Tunney) are rock climbing in Monument Valley. A piton drops out of the rock and father, hanging pendant, begs to be cut loose to save the lives of his children. O''Donnell couldn''t have been funnier if he''d had brayed a Herculean "Nooooooo!" at his dad''s death. Oh, mama, is he bad. This cornball primal scene kills the movie. We know right away that here is one family that''s not going to lose any more members to mountain climbing accidents.

In essence, Vertical Limit is over before it begins. Still I hoped in vain for a good-bad timewaster--hoping for energetic bad acting to make the mountains ring, and Freudian messes that only an avalanche or maybe a Yeti--could catalyze. (Vertical Limit really could have used a Yeti.) Years after the accident, Annie and Peter are reunited by chance in the Himalayas. (One more time, that sentence: Years after the accident, Annie and Peter are reunited by chance in the Himalayas...) The siblings squabble over the Monument Valley tragedy; but because of the chipmunkiness of O''Donnell and Tunney, this dispute looks like a spat between Donny and Marie Osmond. They''ve run into each other at the base camp of the evil Texas billionaire Elliott Vaughn (Bill Paxton) who is trying to climb the mountain K-2. A scene of pre-hike revelry is interrupted by a bearded old man of the mountain named Montgomery Wick (Scott Glenn), who predicts peril to come. Ignoring him, off to the peak goes our villain, accompanied by a sacrificial character, and Vaughn''s personal assistant, Annie. All three are promptly swallowed by a crevasse.

Peter raises a rescue team to save his sister, accompanied on the ascent by the prickly Wick, wise and spiritually attuned to the many moods of K-2. It was a cinematic mistake to spend so much time with the stranded hikers, because Vertical Limit gets stuck in a cave like a sick marmot. Director Martin Campbell >(GoldenEye) and screenwriter/producer Robert King >(Speechless) try to pump up the tension with a steal from the French classic The Wages of Fear, by adding leaky nitroglycerine tanks that need to be lugged up the mountain for the rescue. This device culls the search party, even if we realize that the only real necessity for the nitro is to blow things up in a movie.

A good memory of the alpine scenes of Where Eagles Dare and On Her Majesty''s Secret Service shows up the artificiality of the computer-generated ice shelves and peaks, most of which look about as tangible as Mt. Paramount in the logo. The digi-cheesy snow befits a movie that''s cheapjack no matter how much money it cost; Vertical Limit is a film which, in the old saying, stinks on ice.

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Vertical Limit... ( * )

Rated: PG-13, 126 min.

Director: Martin Campbell

Starring:Chris O''Donnell, Bill Paxton, Robin Tunney, Scott Glenn, Izabella Scorupco

Where:Northridge Cinemas, Monterey State Theater
When: See Movie Times

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