Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!
What's the big deal?
Cliffhanger is an action thriller film released in 1993 that was directed by Renny Harlin. Based on a concept by experienced climber John Long, the film follows a mountain rescue team lured onto a mountain during a storm by professional criminals hoping to escape with their latest heist. The film stars Sylvester Stallone who co-wrote the screenplay, Michael Rooker, John Lithgow and Janine Turner. The film received a mixed reaction from critics at the time although it did find some success at the box office with global takings of $255 million. It also proved polarising at award ceremonies, earning three Oscar nominations but also four Razzie nominations. Despite plans for a sequel and later a reboot, there are currently rumours for a female-centred remake with director Ana Lily Amirpour reportedly on board.
What's it about?
Eight months after failing to rescue his friend Hal's girlfriend Sarah high up in the Colorado Rockies, ranger Gabe Walker returns to his station in order to pick up his belongings. Consumed by guilt and hurt by Hal's bitterness, Gabe is determined to leave his job behind and tries to convince his colleague Jessie Deighan to join him. However, they receive a call from some stranded climbers and while Hal sets off to help them, Jessie persuades a reluctant Gabe to help them out. However, it quickly appears that things are not as they seem.
Gabe, Hal and Jessie locate the distressed climbers, only to discover that the call was a fake and they are taken prisoner by a team of professional criminals led by a former member of British Intelligence, Eric Qualen. Having escaped their latest heist with three suitcases containing a total of more than $100 million, their efforts were foiled when their plane crashed onto the mountain. With the weather turning and their lives in danger, Qualen now requires the help of Gabe's team to help them off the mountain - whether they want to or not...
Gabriel 'Gabe' Walker
Harold 'Hal' Tucker
Jessica 'Jessie' Deighan
Michael France & Sylvester Stallone*
Release Date (UK)
25th June, 1993
Academy Award nominations
Best Sound, Best Sound Effects, Best Visual Effects
Worst Picture, Worst Supporting Actor (Lithgow), Worst Supporting Actress (Turner), Worst Screenplay
What's to like?
For a film with such a cookie-cutter formula behind it, Cliffhanger is actually more fun than it has any right to be. It wisely decides to play things with a more light-hearted approach, eschewing a more serious outlook, by blatantly playing fast and loose with things like logic and gravity. But for fans of the Wish version of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sly still has plenty of gritty action scenes to gut through. In fact, he does very well as the grimly heroic Gabe battling the elements and the baddies with equal aplomb. He doesn't have the charisma of a John McClane-type character but he's a regular kinda guy that you find yourself rooting for.
The same cannot be said for Lithgow's snarling villain, a scenery-chomping monster with a questionable accent. Realising that there is no possible way for Lithgow to compete with Stallone physically, the film works hard to keep them at a distance so he can taunt our hero with quips and threats instead. But in spite of this, the film still delivers on the action front and utilises its gimmick well with ice axes, crampons and rope all being used in a number of lethal ways. I liked the fact that the film works harder at being entertaining rather than being factually based. It makes it feel fun and exciting which is handy for this type of flick. Yes, it was never going to reinvent the wheel but as a disposable piece of escapist fluff, this is just the thing you're looking for.
- Stallone was heavily involved in the film's production, chosen because he wanted to conquer his fear of heights. He also re-invested some of his fee into the production - a reshoot involving a rabbit escaping getting shot cost him $100'000 while the stunt involving a man jumping from one plane to another at 15'000 feet cost him another $1 million as the studio refused to pay for the requisite insurance.
- Although the film is set in Colorado, the film was mostly shot in the Cortina d'Ampezzo-Dolomites mountains in the north of Italy which bear a striking similarity to Colorado. Other films shot in the same region include the Bond film For Your Eyes Only and the original 1963 version of The Pink Panther.
- Stallone and Harlin were originally brought on board a different project by Carolco Pictures called Gale Force which would see Sly battle criminals in a coastal town during a hurricane - initially pitched as 'Die Hard in a hurricane'. Despite spending significant time and money on the proposal, the project was dropped due to budget concerns and worries about the level of special effects involved. So Stallone and Harlin moved on to make this film which cost almost twice as much as Gale Force was budgeted for.
What's not to like?
It's always going to be difficult for a film to break out of the norm when it sticks so rigidly to an existing formula and ever since Bruce Willis wise-cracked his way into our hearts at Nakatomi Plaza, the formula for so many action movies of this type has been "Die Hard on a... / in a...". And while this is still a dumb slice of fun, Cliffhanger is ultimately unable to bring anything new to the table. Yes, the stunt work is first-class and the story is predictable nonsense but the film is content to be a formula film, plodding along the same old path without offering any real diversions or distractions. If you haven't seen many action films before then this approach might work but for someone like me (and I suspect you as well), I needed something more. Why can't a film be Die Hard+ instead of Die Hard With A Different Gimmick?
As previously mentioned, the film has a fairly loose understanding of the laws of nature with characters making leaps over vast chasms and Stallone able to climb snow-capped mountains wearing just shoes and a pair of shorts without feeling any ill effects whatsoever. Even the use of the piton gun, which can apparently fire pitons directly into rock, makes a mockery of any attempt at realism because, if we're being honest here, you knew that someone would be killed getting shot with it the second I mentioned the words 'piton gun'. I get that a more realistic rock-climbing adventure movie would be slower, more technical and less enjoyable but surely common sense should kick in at some point? Apparently, the director's cut had even more ludicrous stunts which resulted in negative reactions at a test screening. They managed to tone it down but it's still quite far-fetched in places, to put it mildly.
Should I watch it?
So long as you don't expect anything world-changing, there's not a lot to dislike about Cliffhanger which manages to exploit its set-up for lots of exciting sequences and energetic stunt work. Sly gives one of his better performances and Lithgow's hammy baddie adds to the sense of fun the film has. But these days, it feels a little old fashioned and it sticks to the Die Hard formula like a tongue to ice. This is fun at its most stupid and therefore, should be treated as such.
Great For: mountain rescue teams wanting to look and feel cooler, undemanding action fans, extreme sports enthusiasts
Not So Great For: seasoned action veterans, bad accent coaches, decent acting coaches
What else should I watch?
There are literally dozens of films that followed the Die Hard formula of a lone hero trapped in a location or situation taking up bad guys and the Nineties were a boom time for such projects. From Steven Seagal's naval chef on a warship in Under Siege, Jean Claude Van Damme's fire fighter at an ice-hockey stadium in Sudden Death to Wesley Snipes' anti-terrorist cop on board a plane as Passenger 57, the formula has been tried and tested as often as its heroes are. The best of the bunch, for my money, is the often overlooked Speed which sees Keanu Reeves in a pre-Matrix role as an LAPD officer on board a speeding bus with a bomb on board. I say it's overlooked because the inevitable sequel (which Keanu wisely dropped out of) stank the place out and ruined its reputation but you could do a lot worse than Speed.
I realise that I have been harsh on Stallone in the past. In the right role or with the right director, he is capable of being a great action movie lead as he proved in films like First Blood and The Expendables. But his success rate is far worse than his long-time friend and rival Arnold Schwarzenegger - for every hit in Sly's career, there is a Judge Dredd, Tango & Cash and Cobra to go with it. His low points are also worse than Arnie's with dire comedies like Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot or the ill-conceived remake of Get Carter considered some of the worst films of his career.
© 2021 Benjamin Cox