Watching Cliffhanger makes me nostalgic for the early '90s, a time when virtually every new action movie could be described as "Die Hard in a /on a." Cliffhanger is "Die Hard on a mountain," and pretty good, for what it is.
But unlike Passenger 57 and Under Siege, which are decent Die Hard clones on their own terms, Cliffhanger dispenses with the enclosed feeling of many action movies and embraces breathtaking landscapes that, in their immensity, threaten to overwhelm and trivialize the conflicts of the people fighting and dying among the peaks.
Years before other movies like A Simple Plan and Fargo dramatized crime and murder on snowbound locations, Cliffhanger director Renny Harlin recognized the visual impact of juxtaposing brutal violence and grim struggles to survive against cold and indifferent natural surroundings.
The opening sequence has already received substantial praise, all of which it deserves: its intensity allows us to forget the artifice of the camera and the actors and simply believe that what we are seeing is actually happening. Not even Harlin's shot of the falling stuffed animal, which is powerfully effective but still threatens to become too much of a joke (and which he repeated in Deep Blue Sea), or the ridiculous expression on Ralph Waite's face, can dim the sequence's power.
The next impressive set-piece is the gunfight and heist aboard the jet. As written by Stallone and Michael France and directed by Harlin, the audience is plunged into the action by not initially knowing which agents are involved in the theft and which are not: the bloody double-crosses are completely unexpected. As Roger Ebert has observed, the stuntman who made the mid-air transfer between the planes deserves some special recognition.
Later, during the avalanche sequence, one of the terrorists/thieves appears to be actually falling as the wall of snow carries him down the mountain. So far as I know, no one was killed in the making of this movie (a small miracle, considering the extreme nature of some of the stunts), so obviously a dummy was used for the shot. But the shot itself remains impressive because we're left wondering how Harlin (or more likely one of the second-unit directors) knew exactly where to place the camera.
I'll take Sly Stallone as my action hero any day of the week, because he's one of the few movie stars I've ever seen who's completely convincing as someone who can withstand a lot of physical and emotional pain, and at the same time actually feels that pain. The role of Gabe Walker really complements Stallone's acting strengths: he plays an older, more vulnerable kind of action hero, giving an impressively low-key performance as a mountain rescuer who must redeem himself.
In contrast to many of today's post-Matrix, comic book-inspired action heroes, Stallone's Walker is an ordinary man who becomes a hero without any paranormal or computer-enhanced abilities. In Cliffhanger, the hero almost freezes to death, and his clothes start to show big tears as he barely escapes one dangerous situation after another. He winces when he's hit and bleeds when he's cut, particularly in the cavern sequence when he takes a Rocky-style pummeling from one of the mad-dog villains.
It should be noted that the utterly despicable villains really contribute to the movie's effectiveness: when I first saw this movie as a teenager, I was rooting for the good guys every step of the way and anticipating when another bad guy would bite the dust (or rather, the ice); at one point I actually cheered as one of the most cold-blooded characters in the movie deservedly suffered a violent demise.
Lithgow's British accent is as unconvincing as the movie's occasional model plane or model helicopter, but he's fundamentally a good actor, and one of the few who can perfectly recite silly dialogue: in one scene, looking at his hostages Stallone and Rooker, trying to decide which tasks to give them, he actually says "You, stay! You, fetch!" Even a better actor, such as Anthony Hopkins, might have had trouble with that line.
Even if Cliffhanger occasionally tosses credibility aside, it does so only for the sake of a more entertaining show.
Early in the movie, for example, Lithgow openly says to one of his men "Retire [Stallone] when he comes down." No real criminal mastermind would have made this mistake even unconsciously: his carelessness allows Rooker to shout a warning up to Sly on the rock face, and this precipitates a gripping tug-of-war between Stallone and the bad guys trying to pull him down by the rope tied to his leg.
Lithgow could have given his order by a more subtle means, but the sequence might not have been as much fun to watch if it hadn't given Rooker an opportunity to openly defy the arrogance of his captor.
Done very much in the style of a Saturday matinee serial or (at times) a Western, Cliffhanger is built on such a solid foundation that it survives some weak elements that would have undermined a lesser film.
Besides the painfully obvious aircraft models mentioned before, the weak moments include a couple of scenes shot on cheap indoor sets with REALLY fake snow, as well as two other scenes involving bats and wolves that seem unnecessary in an already action-packed narrative. Finally, Harlin's decision to film some of the death scenes in slow motion seems pointless, since the technique contributes nothing to the scenes.
It's a shame that Stallone is now too old for action movies, because his character in this movie seems so credible that inevitably I wonder what he would be like years later. But perhaps it's best that Cliffhanger stands on its own for all time, without a sequel: there are enough tired and obsolete movie franchises already. There was an unofficial sequel that called itself Vertical Limit: compared to that clinker, Cliffhanger belongs on the IMDb's Top 250 list.
Rating: 8 (Very good, especially considering most of Stallone's other movies.)