Cliffhanger (1993)
By: Julian on July 8, 2011  | 
Universal | Region 4, PAL | 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 5.1 | 108 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Renny Harlin
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Michael Rooker, Janine Turner, John Lithgow, Rex Linn
Screenplay: Michael France, Sylvester Stallone
Country: USA
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Renny Harlin is an underrated action director. He got off to a rocky start after helming the dire third sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street, but his subsequent efforts including Die Hard 2, The Long Kiss Goodnight and, more recently, Mindhunters and Cleaner, are, at worst, highly entertaining trash. Cliffhanger is Harlin's – and its star, Sylvester Stallone's – best movie. It is the archetypal action flick, a blueprint lovingly drawn up by Harlin, action man and co-writer Stallone and arch-villain John Lithgow.

The most famous scene in Cliffhanger is its opening one (for those philistines unfamiliar with Cliffhanger, recall instead the opening of Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, except with a human and not a racoon). For those unfamiliar with both, Gabe (Stallone) is a Rocky Mountain rescue operative mountain climbing with his best friend Hal (Michael Rooker) and Hal's girlfriend Sarah, with Gabe's love interest Jessie (Janine Turner) piloting the helicopter that was despatched to retrieve the trio. A line is rigged between the summit and the chopper, over a gaping ravine. Mid-way across, Sarah's harness unravels and she is left hanging by a single strap. Gabe races out to save her but, unable to get a firm grip, he can only watch as she falls to her death.

Gabe leaves the Rockies for eight months and when he returns he receives a hostile reception: Jessie resents Gabe for leaving and she is sick of his relentless self-blame over Sarah's death. Hal simply can't forgive Gabe for not doing more. As the trio endure their relationship turmoil, something big is happening in the skies: blessed with an insider and a crack team of nutjobs, master thief Qualen (Lithgow) orchestrates a complicated mid-air heist whereby three weatherproof cases containing $100 million in banknotes are transferred between two moving planes. When the job goes wrong and the cargo falls to the ground, Qualen utilises the expertise of Gabe and Hal, albeit at gunpoint, to locate the cases.

Stallone is not much of an actor but he gives one of his best performances here, even though he occasionally seems a little out of his depth with a character as complex Gabe. Wracked by guilt and desperate to make amends with his old friends and reconnect with his old home, Gabe is not a typical action movie character, and certainly not typical of the characters Stallone is accustomed to playing. For similar reasons, Hal is not a typical action man sidekick: Rooker is an overlooked performer (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is all the evidence one needs when considering Michael Rooker's acting chops) and he is typically excellent here.

The violence is quite brutal for an action movie, and some cuts were made in order to avoid an NC-17 rating in the United States. But even without the violence the action moves at a cracking pace, in most part thanks to Sly, who knows better than most how to wheel out the muscled he-man routine: note, for example, Stallone's improbable victory over a knife-wielding kickboxer by lifting his nemesis and impaling him on a stalactite. And while improbability is practically essential to Stallone/Schwarzenegger/Van Damme et al action sequences, Harlin provides a grounding force in two daredevil lads whose action escapades are more the stuff of normal people: after being shot at, one takes a bullet in the back, parachutes into a tree and gets attacked by wolves.

Gabe and Hal are multifaceted protagonists, but Qualen and company are not: they are just mad and bad. Travers (Rex Linn) provides something a little bit different though – a dim-witted Treasury stooge whose gumption increases only when he realises the power he wields over the loud-mouthed and aggressive party of professional thieves. The performances by the bad guys are all gleefully malevolent – Lithgow does a particularly impressive, if slightly one-note, job as he snarls his way through the proceedings. There are really two villains here: Lithgow and his barbaric crew of nutters, and the unforgiving Rocky Mountains, and both are as brutal as each other – Stallone and Rooker must brave bullets and avalanches, ice picks and rock falls. The scenery is magnificent and beautifully shot, with the picturesque Italian Dolomites standing in for the American Rockies.

Cliffhanger has the action film triptych in spades: a solid leading man; frenetic action sequences shot by a highly capable director; and a cohesive screenplay, bearing in mind the natural implausibilities that are endemic to brawny action movies (and multiply these implausibilities by two given that we're 3000 metres above sea level). What elevates Cliffhanger to the God tier (occupied by films like Die Hard (McTiernan's, not Harlin's) and True Lies, to name two examples from the past twenty-five years) is the character development: our protagonists are not one-dimensional, and this makes the action that little bit more exciting.

Highly recommended.
The picture is presented in 2.35:1 with 16:9 enhancement. The transfer here is fine, but this is a film that should be experienced in high definition.
English audio, presented in 5.1. It is crisp and clear. Subtitles are provided, but oddly there is no menu option to turn them on: this must be done using your DVD remote.
Extra Features
An audio commentary with Harlin, two featurettes (a 20-minute making-of and a 3-minute special effects feature), a 5-minute interview with the director, a photo gallery, TV spots, a theatrical trailer and filmographies of Harlin and Stallone. A fine set.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Cliffhanger is absolutely essential viewing: Sly and Harlin show how it should be done. Our protagonists are a bit more tortured than most, and how they deal with the antagonists (Qualen and the Rockies) makes for some of the most entertaining 100 minutes action cinema has to offer.

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