Director: Renny Harlin
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, Michael Rooker, Janine Turner, Rex Linn, Caroline Goodall, Craig Fairbrass
Plot: A group of mountain rescue rangers are dragged into a cat and mouse chase across the Colorado Rockies when three suitcases of stolen cash are lost in the mountains.
To the unknowing eye, Cliffhanger is little more than an average macho punch-em-up starring Stallone and featuring several scene-chewing bad guys. Character depth is an excuse to add emotion to a standard heist plot and the scenic location is mainly featured to give way to some exhilarating set-pieces. But Cliffhanger is actually a perfect example of an age of action cinema lost to time. The modern action needs an established formula to thrive: audiences have stopped gambling on the plucky everyday action hero storming skyscrapers and now pay more attention to characters they already know (Marvel heroes, 007, Ethan Hunt). Cliffhanger represents a time where an action movie could be a standalone hit, drawing audiences with a winning premise and the simple motive of having fun.
Stripping away expectations reveals an action movie with more daring than most. While the casting of Stallone might lump it with the title of being a Rambo up a mountain (with a lone hero using the elements to overpower bad guys with more firepower), this is a movie bursting with originality. For one, the heroes of this movie Stallone, Rooker and Turner are not trained agents or cops, equipped to deal with nefarious bad guys, but normal blokes taken unawares. The first scene of Cliffhanger packs more emotion and character depth than most action movies have for their entire running time. Stallone is tasked with a routine rescue mission for a pal’s girlfriend, but it goes horribly wrong, resulting in some stomach-turning, pulse-pounding cinema that is bound to leave a sweat. The character plight is fuelled by that opening spectacle with Stallone’s mountain climber suffering from a lack of faith in his own abilities due to that fateful day. His best friend also bears a grudge, agreeing that Stallone should have done better. Only then are we introduced to the beginnings of an action movie as Rex Linn’s dirty cop helps career criminal John Lithgow hijack a plane full of money. The bad guys don’t quite get away with it and are left scrabbling over the mountains to retrieve their missing plunder, putting them butting heads with Stallone’s hero with a tragic past and his grieving colleagues. The location is everything to Cliffhanger, taking the action to an original location. Punch-ups are far more exciting when high up in the air, as two wrestling characters waver over a death-defying drop. It is the kind of cinema that probably inspired vertigo when viewed on the big screen for the first time, director Renny Harlin no stranger to getting the most out of his cinematography. There is also something more natural with Stallone’s hero feeling more comfortable clambering up a mountain than fighting with the bad guys. He is able to impress when hanging off a cliff face using his fingers, more in keeping with his character than mowing down armed men. Harlin does allow for a few action movie beats for entertainment purposes. One baddie is lifted onto a stalactite with gory fashion.
And changing the setting to a new location might seem like a simple trick, but it allows Harlin to fall back onto what the audience really want: a fun Stallone shooter. The bad guys are all scene-chewing, Lithgow adopting the Alan Rickman approach to Hollywood bad guys and over-confident thugs making tactical errors at crucial moments. In the fashion of popular films of the era, there are plenty of baddies, but they are all given enough life and character that they are not lost in the crowd. It is also fun watching them get picked off one by one, wondering which bad guy will make it furthest in the fight against Stallone’s determined ranger. The action comes in glorious spades. There are punch-ups on upturned helicopters, the mandatory flee from C4 moment and some neat tricks from Stallone to keep the action fresh. Harlin knows how to make the most of his tools, making Cliffhanger feel like very easy entertainment, when really, filming an action movie up a mountain was likely far from easy. While the modern blockbuster arguably ups the stakes and goes further with the set-pieces, there is something organic about the likes of Cliffhanger that watching it back makes you miss this age of action cinema.
Final Verdict: Those thinking of Cliffhanger as an average Stallone actioner are missing the point of the essence of the era: natural, home-grown action!