With its nail-biting intensity and breathtaking views of the craggy mountain turrets in Cortina d’Ampezzo Italy subbing in for the Rockies, Renny Harlin’s Cliffhanger (1993) is a high-octane alpine thriller with more gusto than guts; more filler than fantasy, but ever so slickly packaged to make us forget how threadbare and superficial it all is. The plot, rumoured to be the subject of a heated lawsuit between three writers eventually settled out of court, casts muscleman Sly Stallone as a careworn climber doing his best to remain the cynical moralist after an improbable heist goes horribly awry.
In the film’s prologue, rescue climber Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) flies to a precarious peak where pals, Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker), Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner) and his girlfriend Sarah Collins (Michelle Joyner) are trapped. While attempting a dramatic plane-to-perch rescue, Sarah’s harness snaps, leaving her flailing over a deep chasm. Though Gabe is within reach, Sarah plummets to her death leaving Gabe shell-shocked and emotionally wounded.
Flash forward a few months later: Gabe has decided to bow out of the tiny town for parts unknown. Hal, who has blamed Gabe’s grandstanding for Sarah’s death from the beginning, receives a frantic CB call for help at their rescue outpost. Jessie encourages Gabe to go along and aid in the expedition. However, once atop the mountain, tempers flare and Hal narrowly stops himself from tossing Gabe over the side of a cliff.
Unfortunately for all concerned the frantic call turns out to be rouse. Gabe and Hal are taken prisoner by the psychotic Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) and his accomplice, Richard Travers (Rex Linn); a pair of thieves searching for their three $100 million dollar US Treasury suitcases that went down with a plane somewhere in the mountains after a botched skyjacking.
Locating the first suitcase with a beacon transmitter, Qualen orders Gabe to scale a steep wall and retrieve it. However, once hidden from view, Gabe loosens his tether as a means of escape. Qualen opens fire, causing an avalanche that kills one of his own men and is presumed to have buried Gabe beneath a deadly pile of heavy snow.From here on, the screenplay by Michael France and Stallone develops along the lines of a very improbable and dangerous game of cat and mouse with Gabe just a few nimble steps ahead of Qualen and his gang.
Gabe and Jessie are reunited inside an abandoned log cabin and together they recover the second case. When Qualen and his men arrive they find the case empty – save a $1,000 bill with the words ‘Want to trade?’ scribbled on the back. In the meantime, Qualen and Travers use Hal as their homing pigeon in a race against time to recover the third case. In an absurd moment in the film, Jessie and Gabe burn the money from the second case as a means to keep warm while Qualen and his mercenaries spend the night at the abandoned cabin.
The following morning, Qualen hijacks a rescue chopper as Hal leads Travers and the rest of Qualen’s men to the location of the third case. Jessie, who has signaled the helicopter to rescue her and Gabe is instead taken hostage by Qualen and his men.Using Jessie’s two way radio, Qualen makes a deal with Gabe to spare Jessie’s life if Gabe hands over the monies recovered from the third case. Instead, Gabe tosses the bag into the chopper’s rotors, dispersing the loot into the winds and the precipices of the mountain.
The helicopter crashes with Gabe and Qualen dangling from its wreckage – Gabe disentangling himself at the last moment as Qualen plunges to his death. The film ends with Gabe, Hal and Jessie reunited but trapped atop that narrow peak, awaiting rescue by federal agents.
Cliffhanger is barbarically simplistic entertainment, barely conscious of the factual information it attempts to fictitiously utilize. As example: Qualen’s men have supposedly absconded from the Denver Mint with three cases of paper money. One problem: the Denver ‘mint’ only manufactures coin currency. $300 million in coin would weigh a prohibitive 2500 tons!
Though largely panned by both film critics and rock climbing enthusiasts – particularly for its inaccuracies regarding a ‘bolt gun’ that shoots support hooks into the rocky terrain (no such devise exists) – the film was, and remains, a big hit with movie goers and went on to earn an utterly impressive $250 million at the box office.This critic has always been remiss at being able to understand the enduring appeal of Sly Stallone.
True, Stallone generated a minor coup with 1976’s Oscar winner, Rocky. But by the mid-1980s, the filmic exploitation of the ‘muscle head’ had been successfully usurped by former Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger. Stallone had Rambo then, but those films were pale ghosts to the elephantine blockbusters Hollywood was embracing with Arnold as their lead.
In Cliffhanger, Stallone is a ripened physical specimen cut from inferior posing trunks. Despite the fact that most of the film takes place in frigid alpine climates, Stallone is stripped down for most of the action, flexing his artificially enhanced biceps and pecs amidst snowy backdrops – diversionary eye-candy for any Junior Miss or couch potato with a predilection for the old cliché of ‘size matters’.
In retrospect, Cliffhanger retains much of its heart-palpating appeal, though it’s hardly memorable entertainment; rather a stellar filmic example of style entirely triumphant over substance.
Sony Home Entertainment’s Blu-Ray delivers an appealing visual presentation with solidly contrasted images, bright colors and a fair amount of fine detail evident throughout. Yet, the image doesn't seem to pop as it should. There's just something missing. Contrast appears a tad weaker than expected and that's probably part of the problem. Fine details are often not as sharp as we expect, leaving a rather waxen impression to the image that is passable but hardly stellar.
The audio is a lossless DTS master and marked by an aggressive sonic spread across all channels with effects and music being the real beneficiaries here. Extras include deleted scenes and featurettes on the special effects, and the making of the movie. There is also a personal introduction by Harlin, an audio commentary by director and star Stallone, storyboard comparisons, a photo gallery and theatrical trailer to wade through. For the most part, the extras do not enhance an appreciation for the film as much as they merely present a lot more of the same.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)