There are really only two or three directors that I can count on to deliver a product I won't enjoy nowadays, and Renny Harlin happens to be one of them. After having to endure the likes of Die Hard 2, Deep Blue Sea, and especially Exorcist: The Beginning, I was done. But I can't discredit Harlin completely, not when one of his accomplishments happens to be Cliffhanger. Sure, the story is far from original, the scripted dialogue is comically bad, the special effects look terrible, and the film overall is outrageously predictable, but that hasn't stopped it from being one of most entertaining 'mindless' action flicks of all time. This film has a lot of replay value, but the terrible video quality of previous DVD releases has kept it from being screened in my home theater for a few years now, but now that Sony has finally released a worthy enough high-def presentation of this classic on Blu-ray, I have a feeling that's about to change.
Gabe Walker was on top of the world, almost quite literally. He had a good woman by his side, great friends, and an exhilarating job as a Rocky Mountain Rescue climber. Living up in the mountains and being able to climb them freely was a liberating lifestyle to lead, but when Gabe is unable to keep his best friend's girl from falling off one of the peaks, he felt he had no other choice but to leave that life behind. His girlfriend Jessie tried to make him understand that it wasn't his fault, but Gabe couldn't stop running the 'what ifs' through his mind. The fact that his buddy Hal hated him for what happened and likely wouldn't ever forgive him didn't make things any easier though, so Gabe left to go live in Denver. 8 months later Gabe unexpectedly shows up to ask his girlfriend to move out there with him, but before a resolution can be made one way or the other, a rescue call squawks over the radio. A nasty storm is moving in, so taking a helicopter up to the point of rescue is out of the question. The only chance those people on the mountain have is if both Hal and Gabe brave the weather and climb to their rescue. It takes a little while for Gabe to be convinced, but he's eventually able to overcome his fear to climb once more. What they don't realize however, is that the distress call is a fake. A small band of armed criminals are looking for three suitcases loaded with millions of dollars, and instead of risking life and limb to find the cases themselves, they hold Hal and Gabe at gunpoint so they can do the dirty work for them. The villains are ruthless, the conditions are icy, and their lives are on the line. If Gabe and Hal hope to make it off the mountain alive, they're going to have to use their intimate knowledge of the mountain in order to outwit the bad guys.
I've recently mentioned in another review that there's nothing wrong with switching your brain off every once in a while to enjoy a mindless non-stop action thrill ride, and the reason why Cliffhanger has so much replay value, at least for me, is because that's exactly what it is. The entire movie is loaded with gunfire, brutal beat downs, explosions, Stallone flying through the air in slow motion, and there's some pretty creative use of the mountainous terrain for some of the fights as well. Even when the film isn't trying to rock us in the face with action (no pun intended), the beautiful mountaintops are too gorgeous to peel your eyes away from. One of the things that stuck with me ever since I first saw the film however, was its ability to actually convey a sense of dread. When Michael France and Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay, they knew the best way to actually impact the audience was by having some guts and make each and every cast member seem like they were expendable. I really felt that almost every cast member could have been blown away at any time, because the bad guys in this film were friggin' maniacs. Of course, I never really thought that Stallone's character was going to bite the bullet, but he gets roughed up so bad throughout the film that I really wouldn't have been surprised. And speaking of maniacal villains, John Lithgow was amazing as a bad guy. His character was heartless, cold, and calculating, but it's his calm and 'in control' demeanor that made him truly frightening.
I know I'm raving here, but the film isn't perfect by any means. As I mentioned, Sylvester Stallone was partly responsible for the screenplay, and his stamp is definitely all over this one. The dialogue is so clichéd at times it almost makes me want to wince when I hear it. There are some moments where Stallone obviously tried to include some Rocky-esque soul searching, such as when Gabe's girlfriend is telling him that if doesn't face his fear, he'll be stuck on the ledge where he let that poor girl fall forever. And when it comes down to some of the witty one-liners that go back and forth between good and evil, how's this one for a doozy: "Remember, shithead! Keep your arms and legs in the vehicle... at all... TIMES!" That's some pretty horrendous stuff right there. However, being that this is pretty much a popcorn action flick with amazing production values we don't really seem to see that much in films anymore, it only ends up adding to the charm of the film. In the end, Cliffhanger's pace is quick and painless, because even though it's a riveting popcorn action flick first and foremost, the entertainment value consistently remains high because it never takes itself too seriously. It's for this reason that many of the film's obvious flaws never seem to stick out to an obnoxious degree, and why Cliffhanger has so much replay value behind it. If you haven't seen Cliffhanger yet you're missing out on one of the greats.
Cliffhanger is presented in 1080p via the AVC codec (2.40:1), and while this release blows the previous DVD editions out of the water, I can't help but wonder if this is really the best it can possibly look. The most noticeable thing about the film's presentation on this Blu-ray release is its lack of natural looking film grain. There's some really minor grain that can be seen if you're looking for it, but this doesn't exactly look like an entirely faithful reproduction of the film source. It definitely looks like it's been scrubbed digitally, as most of the specks that reared an ugly head in the previous DVD releases have been removed, while fine facial details look smoothed over. There isn't any ugly smearing that's going to distract you from the film and edge enhancement doesn't seem to be an issue, although there are some minor artifacts and banding that will pop up every once in a great while. Contrast is pretty good throughout most of the film, but there are plenty of times where black levels don't seem to be as solid as they should be, occasionally causing the image to look a little washed. Whites are impressive throughout the entirety of the film though, and that's pretty impressive considering most of it takes place in snow. Color levels are strong most of the time, but even they have a tendency to look a little faded every so often. So all in all, this probably isn't the best that Cliffhanger could look, but it trumps the DVD's in every possible way by a pretty great amount. I'd say it's definitely worth the upgrade, but don't expect this to be as pristine as it should be.
If for whatever reason you don't think the picture quality is good enough by your standards, then you should seriously consider upgrading due to the excellent DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that's available. Since the entirety of the action takes place in the wilderness, it was a wonderful surprise to hear ambient noise throughout most of the film. It really made me feel as if I was watching the events as they unfolded on the mountain, and for a film that's nearly 17 years old, that's saying something. Sound effects are often presented with pinpoint precision and flawless clarity, explosions sound realistic and give of a tremendous amount of 'oomph' in the low end, and the score is played with such perfection it feels like the orchestra is in my home theater. Simply put, Cliffhanger has never sounded this good.
Commentary with Director Renny Harlin and Sylvester Stallone - Technical Crew Commentary - Everything you could possibly want to know about the film is contained on both of these commentaries. Harlin and Stallone spend their time discussing nearly every aspect of the film, and provide a lot of great insight as to how difficult it was to film Cliffhanger in such a dangerous production setting. Each of them really do a great job at discussing broad subject matter right down to the most minimal detail, and while doing so, never seem to sound as if they're veering off track. They're always relevant and never come off as dry or dull. Although Harlin and Stallone give a great overview of technical aspects of the film, the technical crew spend all 113 minutes discussing nothing but technical details. For those of you that really want to know how every little shot was done, as well as all the fine details that went into getting those shots, then this one should be fairly entertaining for you as well. For those of you that are bored by nonstop technical talk though, you should probably stick to the first commentary.
A Personal Introduction from Renny Harlin - This is a lengthy introduction at 5 minutes, but it's an interesting piece nonetheless. Harlin pretty much gives the cliffs notes version about the film's production, and actually reminded me of the South Park mini-commentaries that have been so well received. I normally don't care for director intro's, but this one is worth the time.
Deleted Scenes - There are two clips here that were left out of the film, and Harlin discusses them after the fact to fill us in on why he decided not to use them. There's only 8 minutes worth of material here overall, but those 8 minutes are well spent. It's not all that often that a director will go into detail as to why certain scenes were left on the cutting room floor, and although I don't really care for Harlin that much as a director, he certainly deserves kudos for caring this much about his work. All in all, he's a pretty likeable guy.
Making-of Featurette: Stallone on the Edge - This 20 minute featurette really stands as more of a self serving piece of advertising. There are some entertaining details about the film's production, but it doesn't come even close to what's been discussed on the commentary tracks. Skip this one.
Special Effects Featurettes - This is an in-depth breakdown at how two vital scenes of the film were shot - Sarah's Fall and Helicopter Explosion.
Storyboard Comparisons - These are pretty basic storyboard to final product comparisons, but interesting to see nonetheless. The scenes included are - Sarah's Fall, Air-to-Air Zipline, and Helicopter Explosion.
movieIQ - Receive tons of cool factoids and participate in film trivia as it streams live via your BD-Live connection.
Also included is the film's theatrical trailer.
Not only is this probably my favorite Stallone film of all time, Cliffhanger has been one of the most replayed old-school action titles in my collection. The action scenes are top-notch, the scenery is breathtaking, the pace of the film is quick and painless, and John Lithgow gives one of the most memorable bad guy performances you could ever see. It's certainly not a great film by 'film class 101' standards, but as far as a mindless popcorn action flick, this is undoubtedly one of the best choices you could make. Being that this movie is nearly 17 years old however, I'm sure you already have a pretty solid opinion on the film itself, so let's answer the big question: Is this worth the upgrade over the DVD? The answer to this is a resounding yes. Although it could still use a little work, Cliffhanger's video quality blows the previous DVD releases out of the water. If that's not enough for you, the lossless audio track is guaranteed to win you over. Not only that, but the special features cover a lot of interesting ground that should make any 'extras' fiend a happy camper. This one's a no brainer for me - highly recommended.