a critiQal film review Cliffhanger (1993)

Plot: Rocky Mountain rescue worker Gabe (Stallone), enticed back into service by his former girlfriend (Turner) nearly a year after the death of a friend, goes to the aid of some stranded climbers. When he and fellow rescue worker Hal (Rooker) arrive, however, they discover these aren't climbers at all - they are a gang of vicious thieves trying to recover suitcases full of money that fell from their recent botched mid-air hijacking of a US Treasury plane.

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After the success of the Rocky (1976) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) films (at least the first couple), action star Sylvester Stallone hit a slump in the late 80’s. He tried to branch out into other genres, including drama (Oscar) and comedy (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot) – both failures at the box office. Even the latest Rocky (1976) outing, Rocky V (1990) couldn’t save him. It seemed like his career was nearing a premature end…and then came Cliffhanger.

A return to cheesy action flicks, Stallone’s Cliffhanger garnered immediate attention from action fans. It quickly became one of the top grossing movies of the year – and suddenly skyrocketed Stallone’s career back to the top of the mountain, so to speak.

But, would this return to action from Stallone (who would also star in Demolition Man (1993) – another hit – that same year) be still worth checking out nearly 2 decades later? Or has the action fan’s palette matured past this Stallone thriller?

Stallone, playing the Rambo-style mountain climber, is the big draw to Cliffhanger. He does what he can to live up to that burden. True, he doesn’t exactly inspire during the touchy-feely emotional sequences near the beginning of the film. But once the action heats up he finds his footing, and brings the viewer along with him on quite the thrill ride.

John Lithgow, in typical English bad guy fashion, is entertaining as the big villain of the pic, and has a few “he’s a baaad man” moments. He’s bested by quite a bit of bad dialogue, which decreases the impact he may have had otherwise. Unfortunately, with the storyline centering mainly around Stallone’s character, Lithgow’s a bit short-changed by the script. He doesn’t get a solid lead-in to play on, making his character seem a bit of a rehash from his evil incarnations in films like Ricochet and Raising Cain – and nowhere near the fun of the bad guy he would later play in Shrek (2001).

Michael Rooker, who seemed to be spot-on in The Replacement Killers (1998), is also a bit of a disappointment. Since his character spends most of his time floating between love and hate for his co-worker Stallone, it’s unsurprising Rooker himself sees to flounder a bit. Janine Turner is also short-changed, having to play Stallone’s love interest in a mismatch made in movie hell.

Despite some awful dialogue and a seemingly unfinished script, however, Cliffhanger manages to take the viewer’s breath away on more than one occasion. From the much-lampooned opening sequence to the breathtaking beauty of the mountainous terrain, Cliffhanger spends much of it’s time far above the ground. Viewers will still gasp at some of the stunt work – especially since it seems to be Stallone doing all of his own stunts (which can’t possibly be the case).

While the script could have used some work, and the opening sequence has been lampooned so much it’s lost most of it’s impact, Cliffhanger still works in the gravity-defying terrain that made it so popular in the first place. Sure, Lithgow is wasted in the villain role, and the film takes a turn into Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) gore after a nearly bloodless first half. But the majestic beauty of the scenery and the near-constant grapple with gravity helps the film continue to deliver an adrenaline-pumping good time.

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