“Cliffhanger” lives up to its title as a two-hour rollercoaster ride that never stops. A high-octane action suspenser with thrilling vertiginous footage unlike anything seen before in a feature, this is an ideal summer popcorn picture that will keep audiences’ collective palms sweaty and give Sylvester Stallone his first major international hit in some time.
With a good guy seeking redemption and bad guys 200% evil, the battle lines are as clear as in a cartoon or a World War II movie. But where most rugged he-man films feature a few action sequences scattered throughout, director Renny Harlin keeps the adventure stuff in this reputed $ 65 million production coming at an astonishing pace.
Each scene may not top the last — in fact, the two most amazing passages occur early on — but despite its simplistic script, “Cliffhanger” has few peers in the sheer quantity of visceral thrills.
Nine-minute opening sequence is a heart-stopping stunner. Rocky Mountain Rescue pro Gabe Walker (Stallone) has climbed up a needle peak to help rescue an inexperienced climber, the girlfriend of his partner Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker). But in a grippingly detailed succession of events, the rescue goes awry , and the young woman slips out of Gabe’s grasp to her death thousands of feet below.
When Gabe returns to Southern Colorado a year later, he’s unable to patch things up with his own g.f. Jessie (Janine Turner), and Hal still blames him for causing the accident. Having disengaged from friends and career in the interim, Gabe isn’t sure he’s ready to rejoin the living, and gets more than he bargained for by the challenge that is immediately foisted upon him.
In the next-most-gasped-at sequence, a private Treasury Department jet is hijacked by turncoat T-Man Travers (Rex Linn), who slips across a cord to another jet commandeered by the nefarious Qualen (John Lithgow), whose gang of mostly Brit baddies is expecting to collect $ 100 million from the heist.
But the three suitcases containing the cash fall to the ground, and the jet (in another amazing scene) makes a crash landing on a mountain, stranding the band of villains in a gathering storm.
Enter Gabe and Hal, who arrive to rescue the group but are promptly captured and forced to lead them through the snowy, icy terrain to the loot. So it’s the masters of the mountains vs. well-armed and particularly nasty adversaries. Many variations of cat-and-mouse are played, as Gabe escapes and beats the others to some of the money, Jessie choppers in, and the nasties begin quarreling among themselves and are picked off one by one.
The set pieces just keep coming, including an avalanche, a fight with stalagmites, treacherous wolves and a fight in a river under ice.
But the picture has got to scale the peaks one more time for the finale, a literal cliffhanger involving Gabe and Qualen and a helicopter. It’s another doozy.
It was no doubt a lot more fun to think up all these scenes than to shoot them, but on both counts the filmmakers have done their jobs admirably. Harlin’s headlong approach and breathless pacing maintain continual excitement, but what really puts this in a class of its own is the verisimilitude of the action.
Despite credits to stunt and climbing doubles and the occasional process shot , there is no doubt that Stallone and other actors were really up on the sides of mountains for many of the shots, not to mention hanging precariously over distant gorges and ravines. The climbing and aerial footage in widescreen is remarkable throughout, the weather rough, the action utterly convincing. People with a strong fear of heights will get a workout.
Tenor of the action is brutal and sometimes bloody, but tension is the predominant keynote.
Looking great, Stallone is clearly into this one, and it pays off in one of his most rugged screen appearances. Rooker, Turner and Ralph Waite are fine as the other good guys, while the baddies — Lithgow (in what could be called the Alan Rickman role), Linn, Leon, Craig Fairbrass, Caroline Goodall, Denis Forest and Gregory Scott Cummins — all try to outdo each other in defining pure evil.
Although set in Colorado and partly filmed in Durango, most of the picture was lensed in Italy, near Cortina D’Ampezzo in the Alps and in Rome. Locations are spectacular, and tech contributions throughout are aces, with Alex Thomson’s lensing, Frank J. Urioste’s editing and Trevor Jones’ score all charging things up along with the virtuoso visual effects and stunt work.