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.