Release Date: May 28th, 1993 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Renny Harlin Actors: Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, Michael Rooker, Janine Turner, Rex Linn, Caroline Goodall, Michelle Joyner
erhaps unexpectedly, “Cliffhanger” is about men who literally hang from cliffs. It was made at a time when action films sported recognizable, catchy theme music, the heroes were abnormally muscular and the villains unnecessarily despicable, and everyone got to spout absurd one-line retaliations before and after significant death scenes. Directed by Renny Harlin (after “Die Hard 2” but before “Cutthroat Island”) with a screenplay by Sylvester Stallone, “Cliffhanger” is one of the most enjoyably silly adventure films to emerge from the ‘90s, going so far as to earn itself three Academy Award nominations, a Razzie nod for Worst Picture, and a Japanese Academy acknowledgment for Best Foreign Film.
Experienced mountain climber Gabriel Walker (Sylvester Stallone) can’t forgive himself for an accident that cost the life of his best friend’s girlfriend. During a standard Rocky Mountain rescue, Gabe and Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker) were forced into split-second decisions with fatal consequences (a particularly suspenseful opening sequence that would be hilariously parodied in “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls”). Walker takes an eight month leave while his significant other, Jessie (Janine Turner), and Hal continue to work and struggle through the grief.
As Walker dwells on all the guilt he’s stockpiled for himself, a crooked treasury agent (Rex Linn) boards a jet transporting $100 million of uncirculated Denver Mint bills. The plan is to transfer the money, safeguarded in large metal cases, midair to another plane commanded by the ruthless Eric Qualen (John Lithgow). Qualen is a man involved in industrial espionage, possessing the international connections necessary to move the cash. When the hijacking goes awry, the cases are scattered onto the mountainsides, forcing the treasonous men to search for them amongst the dangerously icy cliffs.
John Lithgow plays a character comparable to Kurtwood Smith’s turn in “Robocop.” Both roles are hilariously evil (or obligatorily nasty) and both actors would go on to star in popular sitcom television series (“3rd Rock from the Sun” and “That ‘70s Show,” respectively). Here, Lithgow gets the best (or worst) lines of dialogue, full of unintentional humor and shocking coarseness. But it’s Stallone who has time to build a snowman to taunt the baddies (not unlike Bruce Willis decorating a fallen henchman in “Die Hard”), and who gets ridden down a mountainside like a human sled. “You hit like a sissy!” he challenges after getting severely beaten by one of Qualen’s mercenaries, proving once again that in the movies, Stallone can take more punishment than most. With oodles of gratuitous violence, nonsensical plot elements, and convenient interferences by Mother Nature (such as avalanches, blizzards, wolves, bats, and rabbits for extra contention), “Cliffhanger” is an admittedly frivolous yet highly entertaining action-heavy survivalist thriller.
– Mike Massie