Rating: 3.5 out of 4 /Buy the DVD Here
Tagline: Hang on!
Directed by: Renny Harlin
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, Janine Turner and Michael Rooker.
THE PLAN: A team of murderous criminals looking for their lost loot in the Colorado mountains force a pair of mountain climbers to assist them in reuniting with the cash. Trouble is, one of the mountain climbers is Sly muthaf*ckin' Stallone!
THE KILL: In the early-mid 90s, it seemed like every other action movie was “DIE HARD on a...” something or other. UNDER SIEGE was “DIE HARD on an aircraft carrier”; SPEED was “DIE HARD on a bus”; and CLIFFHANGER was “DIE HARD on a mountain”. And though that's a pretty fair assessment of the latter (one can image that's exactly how the pitch began), Renny Harlin's movie is such an exhilarating, thoroughly enjoyable and frequently astonishing achievement that you're quick to forget how contrived parts of its story might be.
Sly Stallone is Gabe Walker, a man emotionally ruined by a mountain-climbing accident that left the girlfriend of his best friend Hal (Michael Rooker) dead. An expert climber who has hung up his spurs, so to speak, Walker returns to the scene of the tragedy, still racked with guilt over the incident, though the fault wasn't really his own. Meanwhile, a mid-air theft of a U.S. Treasury plane by a band of highly-skilled criminals – led by a snarling creep named Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) – is thwarted; the money lost in the mountains. While able to track down the cash thanks to tracking devices, the villains are ill-equipped to traverse the harrowing terrain. Even bandits need help once in a while, so Qualen and his crew kidnap Gabe and Hal (who still blames Gabe for his girl's death) and force them to assist in getting the lost loot back.
Jeez Sly, stop making that face - she hasn't even done anything to you yet.
This is all pretty ridiculous, of course, but Harlin's breathtaking pace and Alex Thompson's gorgeous cinematography are certain to smack down any qualms you may have about just how believable all of this is. (Besides, it's a goddamn action movie, just go with it.) Everything I've described is established very early on, via amazing, physical sequences that are even more imperssive when you consider that this was before CGI hijacked almost every action scene in cinema. The one-two punch of the film's opening horror sequence – Gabe not being able to hold on to Hal's girlfriend and watching her plummet thousands of feet to her doom – and the attempted robbery of the treasury plane are exciting enough to quicken the pulse of even the most hardcore action fan. And it all happens in the first 15 minutes.
Maybe not the most subtle tour guide, but an effective one.
It's often been said, in this column and in others, that a movie like this one is only as effective as its bad guy – and CLIFFHANGER has a delicious one. John Lithgow plays Eric Qualen with an exaggerated German accent (at least I think that's what it is) and a glimmer of evil mischief in his eyes that indicate the actor and character are having a blast. Prone to sarcasm withering put-downs, Qualen is certainly in the Hans Gruber mold; even rougher around the edges. Lithgow has played many a villain, but this is his most memorable to date. He's joined by the usual consortium of slimey henchmen, the most memorable being Leon (yep, just "Leon") as a particularly hateful, trash-talking bastard who gets his just desserts in delicious fashion.
However, this flick was made in Sly's heyday, when he was practically at the top of the Hollywood foodchain, and he's at peak form here (CLIFFHANGER came at a good time for the action star, who had suffered a string of lame flops). Stallone's greatness as a movie star is his ability to show vulnerability as much as brute strength, and Gabe Walker is definitely a man who carries around with him a whole lot of guilt and sorrow. While he'll never be mistaken for Brando or Olivier, Stallone has always been undervalued as an actor - he's a superhero with humanity and charm. He's absolutely the perfect man for CLIFFHANGER, an insanely entertaining action movie with drama, humor and awesomeness to spare.
The awesome teaser trailer for CLIFFHANGER!
TOP ACTION: Sooo difficult to choose, since every sequence is a thrill. But even though it's more of a suspense scene than an action one, that opening where the girl is stuck in between two mountain peaks and losing her grip is still such a stunner – and must be paid tribute.
TOP DEATH: I don't believe I've ever seen a death-by-stalactite before this movie, and I'm sure I haven't seen one since. It's f*cking awesome.
TOP DIALOGUE: Qualen to Walker: "I must say, you're a real piece of work." Walker's response: "I must say, you're a real piece of shit.".
Walker while burning money in a campfire: "It takes a fortune to heat this place... Bad joke, I know."
FEMALE EXPLOITATION: Janine Turner (remember “Northern Exposure”?!) brings her pretty face to the proceedings as Gabe's one-time flame, but it's too dang cold up there for anything other than a heavy jacket. No woman bits for you!
DRINKING GAME: Take a chug of Irish Coffee every time someone clings for their life to a mountain wall. You'll be woozily climbing up the side of your hous by sunup.
TRIVIA: The film is set in Colorado, but most of the principal photography went down in Italy.
Renny Harlin and Sylvester Stallone were originally going to work on a film called GALE FORCE, which was about a lone man defending a small town against thieves during a hurricane. The cost of that film looked to be too high, so the project was ultimately scrapped and all parties moved onto CLIFFHANGER.