Friday, September 25, 2015

K2: under-rated, filmed in BC, and not on Blu-Ray

When K2 first showed up on VHS, circa 1992, I was working at Rogers Video in Maple Ridge. We got a few copies in, as I recall, and I noticed at the time, scanning the back of the box, that it starred Michael Biehn - whom I'd enjoyed in The Terminator and expected a lot from back in the 1990's - and that it was directed by Franc Roddam, whose name I knew from the film adaptation of the Who's Quadrophenia, which I liked well enough then (but haven't seen in years), and for a small but potent film called War Party. These all were reasons to be curious, but not quite enough for me to ever have gotten around to it - a state which persisted until I found a copy in a DVD garage sale for $1 last weekend. (It's amazing how many opportunities there are to buy DVDs for a buck or two these days). Just finished watching it, and am about to give it an enthusiastic recommendation.

But first, a disclaimer/ word of warning, if you decide to seek this film out, you need to realize that, at least here in Region 1, this is one shitty looking DVD (which presumably is what any torrents of it out there are sourced from; I can't speak to how it looks on Netflix). I can't see any physical copy of it selling on eBay or Amazon that seems better, and that's a shame, because this version of it is about on the level of the old, pre-Blu-Ray DVD of William Friedkin's Sorcerer; it's full-frame, destroying what must have been some magnificent landscape panoramas in the theatrical presentation, and it appears to have been sourced from whatever they made the VHS from, with all the unwanted grain, bad image quality, and so forth associated with VHS; you see what you're in for from the opening titles, where the black background looks more like dark, speckly grey, except where the white titles leave black streaks across the screen on either side (no idea what the correct terminology is for that). It's a really indifferent presentation of the film; I guess when films flop this badly, why bother make them look good for home video?
There's plenty of reasons to see the film, though - and plenty reasons for someone to take pains to restore and release it in a decent transfer. It's maybe not on the level of Friedkin's Sorcerer, but it's every bit as enjoyable, say, as Werner Herzog's rock climbing film Cerro Torre (AKA Scream of Stone) - which is about the only fictional climbing film that I've seen that approaches the subject matter with this degree of respect and accuracy. People who seem to know more than I about climbing repeatedly say, on IMDB, for instance, that the film is the best climbing movie short of the quasi-doc Touching The Void. No doubt it beats the hell out of (the later) Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit and such. People who crave outdoor ordeal adventures or movies shot in forbidding locales will find lots to like with this film.

There's more to be said for it, too, which makes me wonder why K2 was so thoroughly dumped upon back in the day (it still holds a mere 23% on R/T and was a huge flop at the time, we gather). It has terrific performances from both Michael Biehn and (underrated but talented, Ontario-born) Matt Craven, in what I guess was his biggest role ever (you know him as the chemist who fesses up his secrets to Tim Robbins in the tunnel in Jacob's Ladder, or maybe as Rebecca DeMornay's hapless husband in Bruce Sweeney's American Venus). It has some stunning scenery, and while some of the non-climbing sequences are filmed in Pakistan, almost everything else you see is in BC: there's a clear shot of Harbour Centre early on, a rock climbing scene on Steinbok Peak (wonder if Todd Serious ever climbed that?), and a lot of very realistic climbing footage that was actually shot on Mt. Waddington.
There's an excellent Entertainment Weekly article on the making of the film online, which shows just how difficult it must have been to make:
”Every day was just an amazing challenge,” says Craven. ”You got a knock on your tent in the morning — ‘Matt, the helicopter’s ready.’ You’d fly to 9,000 feet on a cliff of ice and snow. I’m blown away by some of the shots we got.” As on actual expeditions, time and weather were constant enemies. ”Our call sheet would have different scenes for three or four different weather variances,” says Biehn, himself a veteran of The Terminator and Aliens. ”By the time they figured out the weather, and got all the equipment and everybody out there, we only had about four hours a day to shoot.”
The article also describes how, "With the help of experienced mountaineers on the crew, Roddam dangled his cameras off sheer rock walls, dragged 300-pound fans up snow and ice faces to produce blizzards, and encouraged his actors to do much of their own climbing." All of which pays off in the visuals. There's a level of realism in the details that is deeply convincing, at least to a non-climber like myself, and while some critics - Ebert - criticize the film for cliches, the people and performances all feel real enough to me; when Ebert writes that the film "serves as an anthology of almost all the obligatory plot points that make mountain climbing movies so predictable," I have to put up my hand and ask his ghost which fuckin' mountain climbing movies he's talking about, exactly - because unless he's going back to the cinema of Nazi Germany, or perhaps The Eiger Sanction (a silly piece of shit Clint Eastwood vehicle, which Ebert gives a full star more than he gave K2) there are precious few major mountain climbing films made before K2 that this film viewer has ever heard of (though apparently there's a 1986 film called The Climb that stars a young Bruce Greenwood, in what appears to have been his first starring role in a theatrical feature. Now that is a film I'd like to see).

K2 was Franc Roddam's last theatrical feature as director; he's gone on to write for television and is the force behind a series called MasterChef, of which I know nothing. It's a shame the film was so under-appreciated when it first came out; one can easily imagine him walking away from filmmaking in sorrow and disgust after a film that involved so much passion and hard work should fail miserably at the box office and with critics. Here's hoping some cool Blu-Ray label (Kino Lorber? Olive Films? Shout Factory?) decides to rescue it from its present obscurity, because this is a really solid film, and would no doubt be even more impressive if it could be seen as was intended...!

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