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This combo action thriller and Sylvester Stallone vanity production is a glossy mix of fabulous production values and annoyingly dumb screenwriting, all meant to deliver no-brainer sadistic thrills to, quote, "undemanding audiences." The story is a bald ripoff of Die Hard, only with several mountains in the Colorado Rockies subbing for a Century City high rise office building. The action is long on energy and photogenic scenery, and short on logic. It would be one of those all-American blockbuster thrillers from our All-American hero Rocky Bal - Sly Stallone, if it weren't for the fact that it was shot mostly in Italy.
Renny Harlin's handsome film is served well by Columbia TriStar's Superbit formatting. (see below)
Life is so unjust. Stallone's Gabe Walker mopes with droopy hound dog eyes over his 'responsibility' for the death of a pretty mountain climber, the girlfriend of his best buddy, Michael Rooker's Hal Tucker. Never mind that Gabe isn't remotely responsible for the accident. Hal was begging for trouble in bringing an inexperienced girl onto what looks like a climb meant only for a pro's pro. Forget that Gabe risked his own life (but got to flex those finely-veined arm muscles) to try to save her. The worst that can be said is that somebody should have checked the victim's pulley harness, as it disintegrates like a high schooler's backpack the moment any weight is put on it.
This life-crushing albatross around Gabe's neck vanishes the moment he joins his old buddy on an impromptu rescue that turns out to be a ruse by nefarious bad guys. It's not hard to tell that they're bad guys. They swear. They have foreign accents. They can't do anything, even amongst themselves, without dire threats and drawn guns. They openly acknowledge that every member of their party is expendable as soon as they're no longer needed, yet the group coheres. Why? They're bad guys, really bad, see?
A single credit in the main titles is given to a man for the 'premise' of the film. I wonder how much the pay scale is for premising? Was this a cocktail napkin suggestion, or a two hundred page typed premise? Was the premise-er a pal of Stallone's doing him a favor, or a screenwriter bought off so that the billable screenwriters eligible for awards (ha ha ha ha ha) and back-end money could be pals closer to the producers? Ah, sweet mysteries of life.
I'll dispense with the story quickly. It's tripe designed to guarantee that continuous action and gory thrills are always on tap. I've never heard of a renegade Treasury agent but this movie's got one, and his plan to steal the loot is incredibly unlikely, not to mention repetitive, as it replays the tether gag in the opening rescue scene. The three cases fall together but end up on mountain peaks (peaks only, mind you, none landed in a lake or out on highway 101) miles apart. The baddies survive an unlikely crash in the middle of the mountains. Nobody seems to need food for their two days of exertion. Going between mountain peaks is a walk in the park, except for the Herculean climbs done by the two mountaineers. Gabe consistently foils the baddies by getting to the cases first, and leaving nervy little notes (this original 'premise 'seems to have come from a videocassette of Die Hard). Nobody is injured or wounded, every killing is spectacular and sadistically 'entertaining.' The heroes are of course both beaten to bloody pulps, with no ill effects or crimp on their ability to perform superhuman feats.
For some reason, although the snow has stopped falling, Gabe is able to run and hide in the winter wonderland without leaving any tracks for the baddies to follow. For evil baddies, they're incredibly lame, assuming he's dead without evidence, etc. Individual setpieces allow the main baddie hit men to go raving nuts instead of simply killing when they need to, and most of the violent confrontations are absurd. The nadir of the righteous moral 'power' of the 90s action film comes when Stallone dispatches a bad guy by bench-pressing him upwards to be impaled on a stalactite, something Steve Reeves would have refused to do. It's all ludicrous beyond description and a terrible reflection on the average mentality of audiences.
This may sound elitist, but it takes more than good direction and breathing actors to interest me in action scenes. The characters need to be motivated even more than in normal drama, and having the action be about something more than generic good and evil helps too. I no longer speculate that the public prefers life to be an easily digestible formula of goodness versus badness and refrains from thinking any further. I think it's true.
For motivation, the actors must have been singing 'We're in the money' or something, just grateful to have jobs. Lithgow is clearly there for the paycheck. The script doesn't allow time for much of anything but clunker lines "You left a lot more than you think up on that mountain!" and over-the-top sadism that needs to out do last week's action film. Therefore, instead of being a career boost to a talented performer like Janine Turner, she finds herself playing June Cleaver in the Leave it To Beaver movie. Ralph Waite and Paul Winfield are in to make us think we're seeing familiar faces.
As a production, Cliffhanger is very impressive, if you like pretty pictures. Good lensing and effects work by Boss Film (Die Hard, again) convincingly place Stallone atop vertiginous peaks and suspend him from risky tethers. CGI was not the standard in 1993, and all manner of mattes, trick sets, miniatures and even puppets were employed to create illusions better than most. It's very good work.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Cliffhanger is a top-notch encoding of the non-stop action show in the Superbit formula: no extras or fancy menus, maximum disc space devoted to image quality. Some viewers swear by this and others think it's a rip-off. I've compared several Superbit shows to earlier discs and have always seen the improvement. That doesn't mean that the overall entertainment value rises for the average viewer - the movies are still the same, unless you're the type who watches films to see the surround indicators light up on one's Dolby amp, or keeps the bit-rate monitor up at all times. If you already have the movie, consider that on most systems you might not perceive a difference. If you don't have this title, the Superbit is a good choice if extras or other languages aren't a priority.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,