For a movie that is ostensibly about adventure and that indeed takes as its title and setting the world's most dangerous mountain, "K2" sticks pretty timidly to well-worn paths.
The plot is uphill all the way: Two buddies, one macho, one sensitive, risk all and betray all to stand momentarily on a crest of snow-packed stone and say to the billion tons of rock piled up six miles deep beneath them, "We beat you, you -------!" Why? Because it's there, that's why, and because boys will be boys.
But virtually nothing happens that surprises. Almost as if he's cruising between the overlooks on the Skyline Drive, director Franc Roddam hits the high notes swiftly, then moves on: from the needling tough guy chatter between the climbers, to the token tough gal along for the ride, to the moment of epiphany when Good Guy One leaves Good Guy Two on the hilltop, in eight feet of white stuff, with a broken leg; to Good Guy One's miraculous return -- it's all familiar. You might say he leaves no stone unturned and no cliche untried.
Of course what is being argued under the bombast and the blizzards are competing styles of masculinity. The movie really asks not why do men climb mountains but what is a man? Michael Biehn plays Taylor Brooks, a wealthy young Washington state lawyer and ardent climber, who is Homo Aggressor. Life is war, and that's that: He goes about his business spouting nonsense about "the way of the warrior" while squishing all the little people who get in his way. He's pure testosterone on two legs, selfish, beautiful, courageous and about 3 years old.
His buddy is Harold Jamieson, played by Matt Craven, who represents the kinder, gentler half of the male sensibility -- he's Homo Nurturer: A father and a biophysicist, Harold stands for co-operation, teamwork, sacrifice, compassion, empathy. He also likes to climb mountains.
Both actors are superb: Biehn brings that crazed edginess to the part that was so stirring in "Terminator," and you never for a second doubt his willingness to go all the way. Craven is daffy and strong at the same time. More important, you feel the dynamic of the relationship: Biehn's sense of control which is almost exploitation and Craven's yearning for freedom and yet apparent willingness to be exploited. It's like a marriage, in many respects, very provocatively imagined and dramatized.
But that's about all there is. The screenplay has been "opened up" from a two-character play by Patrick Meyers, but only barely. The other characters -- Raymond J. Barry as the expedition leader and sponsor, Luca Bercovici as its organizer, Patricia Charbonneau as The Woman -- are ciphers. It would help also if Roddam had given us a better schematic sense of the mountain itself, so that we could follow the team up and would always know where they were in relationship to their quest.
As for the mountains themselves, they are the production's one shining triumph. The movie brilliantly takes us into climber-culture and shows us that modern mountaineering is high-tech hard labor; it's like coal mining while hanging by your fingers. Using British Columbia for Pakistan, it still stumbles on some stunning hills. And, finally, the movie also delivers on the rush of conquest that floods through men both macho and sensitive when they make it to the top and know they've earned a view of creation theretofore known but to God.
Starring Michael Biehn and Matt Craven.
Directed by Franc Roddam.
Released by Paramount.