Movie Review: An Alpine Peak Too Far, “Summit Fever”

The climbing footage is striking and the Alpine settings breathtaking in “Summit Fever,” a mountaineering thriller that also boasts some of the most stark and startling deaths the genre has ever seen.

Sure, there are formulaic touches and in its more melodramatic moments, lapses into pure cinematic popcorn. I could’ve done without the veteran climber screaming “Give us a f—–g chance!” at a storm raging around him and his battered mates in one sequence.

It all gets to be a bit much, to be honest. The film’s final act drags on as we — and the climbing characters — are battered with every predicament in the book, from a sudden storm and plunging temperatures to hypothermic hallucinations and violent conflict among the climbers.

But hand it to writer-director and climbing enthusiast Julian Gilbey. He shows us the good, the bad and the unendurable in this one, a movie that questions the “died doing what he/she loved” ethos of the sport and illustrates just how ugly a body looks, broken from a fall and frozen in the snow.

Freddie Thorp of Netflix’s “Fate: The Winx Saga” heads a cast of great screen beauties as Michael, a recent graduate heading to work in Dad’s Big Insurance firm in London, but tempted into the Alps by his even-hunkier climbing buddy/trainer Jean Paul, aka “JP” (Michel Biel of “Dunkirk” and TV’s “Baptiste”).

“You can worry about next year NEXT YEAR.” Come on, “one mountain, one week.” They’ll do the Matterhorn, the Eiger and Mont Blanc in the same summer.

Once he arrives in Chamonix, Michael falls in with JP and the grand old man of their crew, California-born climbing guide Leo (Ryan Phillippe), as well as Leo’s climbing girlfriend Natascha (Hannah New) and the skiing non-climber who used to be JP’s girlfriend, the fetching Isabel (Mathilde Warnier).

They’re pressed for time, and in the season of the year when snow melts and ice walls give way with thunderous cracks. And climbing has turned into an extreme sport with TV coverage, “speed records” and sponsors amping up the energy, the stakes and the danger level.

“Safety always” might be Leo’s motto. But times have changed. “Vanity is a deadly thing to bring into these mountains.”

We get a hint of what drives Michael’s “Summit Fever” as Leo treats him to some nasty “You need a fresh diaper?” hazing and JP seems hellbent on realizing his dream.

“I’m not sharing my headstone with some mountain, JP.” Or is he?

I liked a lot of what goes on here, the camaraderie, the depictions of mountaineering technique, even the deluded, over-compensating pub “wakes” for the many who fall in this killing season. Whoops and drinks all around, and on to the next peak.

“They died doing what they loved,” they convince themselves.

“They died screaming,” Michael mutters, bringing everybody down, but everybody back to Earth as well.

Gilbey goes to some pains of showing us the different peaks and their challenges, mixing that in with the budding romance between Michael and Isabel, and the death that haunts the kid-climber with every swing of his ice-axe.

It all gets to be a bit much and goes on too long, but the acting’s decent, the melodrama manageable and the climbing on a par with the best sequences ever filmed. Meet it on its own level and “Summit Fever” isn’t bad, and certainly not as bad as most couch-potato critics have been saying.

Rating: R, violence, profanity

Cast: Freddie Thorp, Mathilde Warnier, Michel Biel, Hannah Ne, and Ryan Phillippe.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Julian Gilbey. A Saban Films release.

Running time: 1:55

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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