Tuesday 13 August 2013

Movie Review: Cliffhanger (1993)

Over the top stunts and excessive violence in a mountain setting, Cliffhanger delivers what can be expected from a Sylvester Stallone action thriller. Most of the movie is derivative, but it is packaged in slick enough wrapping.

Gabe Walker (Stallone) is an expert mountain ranger, haunted by his inability to save Sarah (Michelle Joyner), a stranded and inexperienced climber, from plunging to her death. Gabe walks away from his mountain climbing career, leaving behind his girlfriend and rescue helicopter pilot Jessie (Janine Turner), fellow ranger and the late Sarah's boyfriend Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker), and veteran rescue team member Frank (Ralph Waite).

Eight months later, crooked US Treasury Agent Richard Travers (Rex Linn) attempts a dramatic mid-air robbery of $100 million in untraceable bank notes, with the help of master criminal Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) and his gang of thugs. The botched caper results in a crash landing, briefcases full of cash lost in the Rockies, and a pack of heavily armed criminals stranded in the mountains. Not knowing who they are dealing with, Jessie presses Gabe back into service to help Hal reach the survivors, but the rescuers become prisoners as Travers and Qualen force Gabe and Hal at gunpoint to help find the missing briefcases.

Cliffhanger does look magnificent. Filmed mostly in the Italian Alps, cinematographer Alex Thomson finds the grandeur in the imposing mountains, and plenty of sheer cliffs, ledges, and impressive rock formations to stage the action against. The opening scene, featuring Gabe's desperate attempt to rescue Sarah followed by her harrowing demise, is a stunner. It's a shock to see Stallone's heroic persona fail in spectacular fashion, and that initial jolt creates an unmistakeable halo deep into the movie. And while director Renny Harlin demonstrates little interest in character development, he does deliver the pacing to match the intensity of the action. From that opening scene onwards, Cliffhanger is strapped into a high speed thrill ride, with no break to catch a breath or lose momentum.

But rather unfortunately, Cliffhanger does settles into a predictable series of incredible mountaineering stunts, interrupted by scenes of extreme violence. Stallone and his stunt doubles contort themselves to climb, jump, slide, and rappel across the mountains in highly improbable displays of astonishing muscularity and gravity-defying feats. Meanwhile, Qualen and his gang try to find ever more sadistic ways to beat, kick, torture, shoot and blow-up Gabe and Hal in their single-minded quest to find the mission millions. Cliffhanger offers great breathless action but not much else, as it settles for a celebration of old-fashioned masculinity.

There are obvious attempts to create a Die Hard In The Mountains vibe, but the screenplay by Michael France and Stallone falls short in finding the necessary sharpness. The villains are more boring than entertaining, Lithgow's Qualen veering into comic buffoon territory despite all the attempted evil hissing in an English accent. And Stallone's Gabe is lacking in charisma, delivering instead a dour mass of moping muscle. The supporting actors, particularly Janine Turner and Ralph Waite, never rise much beyond their television roots.

Cliffhanger is undemanding entertainment. The backpack is filled with high-altitude action, but when it comes to realism and thoughtfulness, the movie hangs by a thin thread.

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