By Marc S. Sanders

It’s an action picture.  What’s common?  Sylvester Stallone, the MacGuffin is money, and the villain has a European accent.  What’s uncommon?  The setting is a Colorado snow covered mountain. 

The movie is Cliffhanger directed by Renny Harlin.

This film deserves much praise for the photography it offers of Stallone and his sidekicks (Michael Rooker, Janine Turner) scaling steep rock formations while trying to evade brutal, but moronic, thieves who have foolishly lost their booty in midair. Now the bad guys must recover the stolen Federal Reserve bills which are scattered in three different locations within the mountain range.  When their plane crashes they force the heroes into leading them on an expedition to locate the money before they will surely kill them.  John Lithgow leads the villains.  Thanks to his slithery English dialect, he’s not bad in the part.

For a pinch of character depth, Gabe (Stallone) is haunted by the opening scene of the film where he failed to rescue the girlfriend of his buddy, Hal (Rooker).  Gabe and Hal will be awarded the opportunity to make amends thanks to this unexpected adventure.  Cliffhanger is not just a thriller.  It’s also a chick flick for guys. 

On a modern flat screen TV, it is quite discernable to recognize the CGI and handcrafted sets that make up much of the scenes.  However, the thrill of it all still holds up and as noted before, the overhead shots really look spectacular.  Stallone really is hanging from these bottomless heights with just one hand; at least that’s what it looks like.  If there is an illusion at play, then there are moments where I can’t tell if I’m being deceived.

The opening scene is the highlight of the picture as Gabe must zip line himself upside down over a wide crevice while attempting to save a hapless climber whose harness has given out.  It’s impossible not to sit still during a well edited and directed moment like this.  This is a masterful scene of terror and suspense.  Renny Harlin is certainly an undervalued director in the action genre.  (I wonder what he’s been up to these days.)

The bad guys are quite hapless though, as they freely bicker among themselves and give away how they’ll happily kill the heroes quickly, allowing one to warn the others.  They are dumb right from the start by killing the pilot of the plane they’re on before fully completing their mission and idiotically losing the money at play.  Then again, as my Unpaid Critic colleague would say, “Then there’d be no movie.”  True Mig!  Very true.

Still, the atmosphere of Cliffhanger is what works.  Blustery snow and wind come off convincingly as Gabe is forced to freeze and shiver with no layers to keep him warm while executing some daring escapes.  Rescue helicopter stunts and collisions are sensational.  There are obligatory shootouts and bloody slashes of skin from climbing tools.  There’s even a bat cave, with no superhero in sight, but it will give you the willies.

I’m hot and cold on many of Sylvester Stallone’s films.  Don’t get me started on Assassins with Antonio Banderas or The Specialist with Sharon Stone.  Those movies required some nuanced acting that the action star just wasn’t offering.  However, here the adventure makes the piece thanks to the director, and Stallone fits right into this environment where the role demands strength, stamina, and outdoor intuition.  Renny Harlin is the top hero here, allowing the marquee actor to look really good on screen.


By Marc S. Sanders

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most famous role is The Terminator. The role made the muscle man a star simply based on his menacing appearance alone. Let’s face it. The guy looks pretty cool in the black leather jacket with sunglasses while riding a motorcycle. The shotgun and Uzi complete the appearance as well. All that he needs to do now is say “I’ll be back!” and you’ve got one of the most memorable film characters in history.

Director James Cameron with future wife and producer Gale Anne Hurd conceived this time traveling sci fi flick with next to no money and churned out what first feels like a Friday the 13th slasher film for USA Up All Night, but then became a little more thought provoking. You might work too hard questioning the time travel nonsense. However, the idea is so simple and yet so smart.

Schwarzenegger is a cyborg designed to look human with flesh and blood who travels from the year 2029 to 1984 to assasinate Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a woman who becomes the mother of the would be leader of resistance fighters against a dominant machine army that has eradicated most of the human population. To fend off the Terminator and protect Sarah, a human fighter, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), has also travelled back in time.

James Cameron is a director of craftsmanship. He assembles riveting action sequences and his visual effects with makeup designs from Stan Winston are marvelous, especially considering the limited funds he had to work with. The dark, bleak future showing the war of the machines is well staged with vast lands of waste and crushed skulls. Laser beams dart across the screen with blaring Atari like sound effects. It’s not the most sophisticated, but it works.

The acting is very over the top however. Schwarzenegger is fine as he just needs to be robotic like the role demands. He hardly has any lines actually. Biehn and Hamilton needed a few more acting lessons though. Hamilton’s fear is terribly unconvincing and Biehn is overly dramatic. Their chemistry is also a little sour. They look great together if you saw them on a page of Tiger Beat or Starlog magazine, but their acting scenes fall flat. The script’s dialogue doesn’t help them either, but James Cameron was never big on dialogue anyway. There’s a reason that his masterpiece “Titanic” got all of those Oscar nominations except for screenplay.

Still, because the film is mostly steeped in wall to wall action that’s very well edited and the idea for this new kind of sci fi thriller is so inventive, The Terminator is one for the ages. It’s a film that can definitely be watched on repeat.

It’s best to take the story seriously while feeling exhilarated by the car chases and shootouts (especially in a police precinct with 30 cops), but it’s okay to roll your eyes at the ham on rye with cheese & mayo acting too.


By Marc S. Sanders

I was only a mild fan of the original Star Trek television show. Some storylines were flat and simply a bore. It had some thrilling moments though, including episodes that I’ve watched on repeat. (The Squire Of Gothos was always my favorite.) Unfortunately, the first big budgeted Trek film followed suit of the weaker, less interesting aspects of Gene Roddenberry’s series. Thankfully, Paramount Pictures with producer Harve Bennett had enough faith to try once more and get it right. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is one of my favorite science fiction films of all time.

Bennett invested time in rewatching the entire series looking for the return of a formidable foe against the crew of the famed Starship Enterprise, and he settled on the power mad muscled genius, Khan (played with gravitas and impressive pecs by Ricardo Montalban) from the series episode Space Seed.

Khan, along with his wife and crew were left marooned by Captain James T Kirk (William Shatner) on a barren planet for their crimes. Fifteen years have passed and Chekhov (Walter Koenig) along with his Captain (Paul Winfield) unexpectedly come upon the villain’s vessel. Now Khan has taken control of their starship with a vow for revenge upon Kirk.

Caught in the middle of this conflict is a new age device called “Genesis” which has the potential to create life from non life. Find a planet devoid of any living organism and allow the device to go to work. In Khan’s hands though, it could serve as a terribly destructive weapon.

Regardless of its ending, The Wrath Of Khan offers the best performance by Willam Shatner with his memorably storied character. There’s more depth than ever in Kirk. He is now ranked as an Admiral who in turn is denied of directly commanding a starship, his greatest career accomplishment. He’s fearful of aging as his birthday approaches. He also meets up with a past flame whom he shares a son with. There’s plenty of dimension devoted to Kirk, and it all works. None of it feels mired down. This is a story devoted primarily to Shatner’s character with the others in tow. He looks so comfortable in the role as he walks the halls of the Enterprise. Because he always looks like he knows where he’s going, so does the audience. He’s very casual in his manner. The setting of the starship has life when Kirk is populated within it.

Furthermore, the friendship he has with Spock (Leonard Nimoy) feels solid. When Spock gifts Kirk an antique copy of Charles Dicken’s A Tale Of Two Cities, you feel cozy in the history of these two people. It’s further noted in Kirk’s relationship with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly). It’s important to realize that this film is only the second film following three seasons of an episodic television show that more or less just showed villains of the week. We never had an opportunity to really get inside Kirk’s head before. So despite the vastness of Star Trek, it’s main players were arguably still quite green.

Director Nicholas Meyer (the best one of all the films), turns two sea captains upon one another amid an ocean of space as they play battleship. You get a strong idea of the tactician that Khan is. Montalban is great as a Captain Ahab seeking to destroy his Moby Dick, suitably relying on quoting Melville’s classic novel. Meyer is so good at drawing from the best of both sides. The adversity between Khan and Kirk works very effectively that you hardly realize that Shatner and Montalban never appear on the same set together. Both primarily work from their Captain’s chairs. The set ups play with much strategy and good back and forth dialogue as they communicate by screen images. Call it their “Zoom Session” if you must. Ultimately, this film demonstrates that how a movie is only as strong as its villain.

The Enterprise setting also looks superb with its elevators, curved and endless hallways, engineering platforms & alcoves and submarine like doors. The command bridge looks realistically functional too. Everything on the Enterprise seems like it has a working purpose. When crew members are running towards something or climbing a ladder, Nicholas Meyer makes it feel like you know where these people are going and what they are trying to do.

Composer James Horner also needs a good amount of credit. At times, his music comes off frightening. As Khan makes various approaches with his ship, Horner has this claw like thunder clap cued in to the danger. His more upbeat tempos feel like proud militaristic marches for the Starfleet characters. You get that feeling especially in the opening credits. During a sequence where the two ships are flying blind through a nebula, the music is eerily string like and quiet. Horner studied this film to get the absolute best notes.

The ending is heartbreaking and suitable to the character arc that Kirk experiences. While it is surprising, it’s also pleasingly foreshadowed, wrapping up the internal dilemma that Kirk grapples with over the course of the film.

I would argue that Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan turned out to be the most vitally important chapter in the famous franchise’s history. It succeeded in acting, writing, effects, setting, score and direction. Had this film not generated a response from audiences, I have to wonder if any more of Star Trek would ever have been seen again.

One thing for sure, you don’t have to be a die hard fan to really appreciate a great film like The Wrath Of Khan.