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Cliffhanger Review

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by Chris McEneany Jan 23, 2010

    Cliffhanger Review

    1993 was a good year for Stallone. With this and Demolition Man he regained his foothold as action top dog at the box office. It was also a good year for man-against-the-elements yarns, what with this, obviously, Frank Marshall's Alive and Andrew Davies' The Fugitive all helping to reinvigorate outdoors adventure. But Renny Harlin's pulse-pounding, vertigo-inducing Cliffhanger was, undeniably, the most downright enjoyable of them all.

    “Time to kill a mountain man.”

    Having not properly rippled his pecs since the excellent double-tap of Lock-Up and Tango & Cash back in 1989, (we won't count Rocky V, will we?) the time was right for Sly to brave the heights and regain his muscle-bound mojo. Turning in draft after draft of this screenplay until he and Finnish adrenaline-junkie Harlin were both satisfied that they had the delirious actioner in peak condition, Stallone leap into the project with his once-customary vigour, those couple of years spent adrift in the filmic wilderness of soft comedy vanquished as Cliffhanger opened the door to another string of thrillers that came bouncing his way like the boulders he enjoys dislodging down a hillside in this strenuous, sinew-stretcher.

    Sly's heroic mountain rescuer, Gabriel Walker, knocks the rocks from his head after a tragic case of “butter fingers” in a stunning introductory scene-setter and is forced to re-evaluate his life for approximately five minutes before shunting any thoughts of retirement very swiftly on to the backburner when a ruthless band of sneering ne'er-do-wells drop in and start turning his beloved Rocky Mountain National Park into Swiss Cheese with extreme firepower and some severely bad attitudes. After his mid-air heist of US Treasury money goes explosively wrong, notorious scumbag, Eric Qualen (John Lithgow), and his goons lose the cases holding their booty and crash-land in the mountains, with seemingly all the equipment of a small army, and set about locating them before the Feds, in the guise of trusty old Paul Winfield, catch up with them. But with their haul scattered all over the snowy peaks, they are going to need someone to lead the way. Thus, capturing Gabe and his buddy, Hal (“He's not my friend. And I don't like him any more than I like you!”), played by Michael Rooker, Qualen uses them as little more than shackled Sherpas and convenient punch-bags for their seek and locate mission. Knowing that they will be killed as soon as they've led the gang to their frozen nest-eggs, Gabe swings into prime-time derring-do mode and, utilising all his brawny skills and knowledge of the terrain, escapes their clutches and embarks on a violent game of cat and mouse. Somehow he has to save Hal from their desperate grasp and get to the cash before they do and patch things up with his rescue team girlfriend Jesse (the ever-cute, elfin-faced Janine Turner) and get back his head for heights and run in slow-motion from as many explosions as he can and reaffirm that, after a couple of utterly lousy comedy-capers, nobody, but nobody does tough environmental adventures as good, or as enjoyably as Stallone.

    And all of this he, of course, does, fashioning in the same process another indelible and larger-than-life action icon to stand toe-to-toe with Johnny Rambo and Rocky Balboa. Well, maybe not quite ... but Gabe is certainly one of the more genuinely charismatic characters that he has come up with. He may be in awesome shape, but this guy is not a trained killer, and his vulnerability in the face of such heavily-armed and nasty antagonists makes his rush of death-defying escapades far more exciting and tense than you would normally associate with his stalwart, obviously going-to-win screen persona. Who the eventual King of the Mountains will be may never be in any doubt, but the sheer size and variety of the obstacles that are thrown in Gabe's path make for a reassuringly bumpy and frenetic ride along the way.

    “Kill a few people, they call you a murderer. Kill a million and you're a conqueror. Go figure ...”

    Director Renny Harlin loves the Big Pitch. He knows that action movies are ten-a-penny and that all that really differs from outing to outing is the location they take place within. After dragging John McClane through his second lightning bolt of terrorism in Die Hard 2: Die Harder, his brand of testosterone-loaded thrills seemed tailor-made for this Die Hard On A Mountain, as so many are wont to call to hail it. (Actually, due to the unusual style of the film's original poster, a lot of people insisted on calling the film “Hang On”!) But this is a guy who bravely ventured into the then-derided and all-but-buried pirate picture with Cutthroat Island (see separate BD review) long before Johnny Depp made it all the rage again, and even wrestled on the tail-end of Jaws with his surprisingly enjoyable Deep Blue Sea, so with his typically Finnish dedication and American-honed gung-ho approach to movie-making, this punishing crevice-cracker, if you'll pardon the expression, proved to be a vital shot in Sly's formidable arm as well as an impressive commercial success. He may have stalled with Sly in the later, and considerably lacklustre Driven from 2001, but the pair completely nailed it with Cliffhanger.

    “It costs a fortune to heat this place ...”

    So sayeth the Sly as a million dollars goes up in smoke.

    Quite where a mountain rescuer turns into an indestructible super-warrior is uncertain, but the inspired thing is that we are having such a good time watching Gabe outwit his enemies as well as the freezing temperatures, that we just don't care either. In fact Cliffhanger is a film that wears its daftness as proudly as a neon-lit badge, but makes sure that it never pauses long enough for you to even notice the shortcomings and narrative plunges that it takes. One thing is for certain, he must have centrally-heated muscles!

    One of the most unexpected things that Harlin brings to bear is the level of violence he punches across the screen. I mean even Pa Walton, Ralph Waite, as dependable veteran pilot/rescuer Frank, ain't safe on this mountain! However, one amazingly cheeky thing is that no matter how battered and tormented poor Hal becomes - and he takes some punishment, all right - part of us possibly enjoys his dire predicament simply because just prior to this he had brought the title character in Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer to sadistic life with such convincing relish and we feel - I know that I certainly do - that he damn well deserves such relentlessly rough treatment. Even so, you have to hand it to Rooker for taking all this nastiness on the chin. He just doesn't get a break. First, he loses his girlfriend down a very steep chasm, then the ex-buddy he blames for it shows up again to rake open old wounds, then he spends the rest of the movie getting kicked and punched and dragged all over the mountain-tops and watching virtually every other innocent person he knows getting blown away. Forget Viggo Mortenson's terrified father in John Hillcoat's awesome The Road, Hal has probably the worst day imaginable during his scenic tour. Harlin stated that he wanted us to feel the pain of a proper beating and to understand that it does a lot of damage. Hmmm, well he does have us wincing at the ferocity of the frequently grim boot 'n' fist salvoes, but he isn't quite so successful at resisting Hollywood's firm belief that a good guy can then simply get up and walk away afterwards. All the bone-crunching inter-personal mayhem and the blood splashed on the snow ultimately act as more set-dressing, then.

    Janine Turner was always one of the main attractions for me watching TV's Northern Exposure and, out of everyone on-set, with the possible exception of her fjord-born director, she, at least, knows her way around a snowy landscape. And, as far as I am concerned, she does not seem quite as miscast as many commentators have alleged. Whether behind the controls of the big red helicopter, swinging across cliffs that have been rigged to blow-up, kicking a baddie in the face, or simply observing the fact that the “winds are picking up”, she is a lot more convincing than many female sidekicks or love interests in this genre. I like the way that, later on, when stuck in the clutches of the vile Qualen, we see her determinedly trying to wriggle out of the handcuffs that bind her as opposed to merely whimpering in fear and waiting the hero to rescue them like so many others would be doing.

    “Keep your arms and legs in the vehicle at all times!”

    The high-points, if you'll pardon another pun, are numerous. For a start, Cliffhanger lives up to its title - and then some - with its opening sequence, a set-piece that has already gone down in cinematic history as being one of the truest, purest white-knucklers ever to buckle knees, clutch hearts and flip stomachs. Playing like a mini-movie in its own right, this scene, the disastrous attempt to rescue Hal (who really should have known better) and his girlfriend from a perch so high and precipitous that it would give an eagle vertigo, is like all those pivotal sweaty-palm moments from every disaster movie you've ever seen all distilled and poured into one single shot of the neatest adrenaline. That you can guess, way in advance, what is going to happen doesn't lessen the impact one iota when it does. “Sarah ... you're not gonna die!” A marvellously doomed line, and one that will be echoed much later on when the stakes are even more personal. It is worth mentioning that Harlin mimics this scene in Deep Blue Sea, shifting the threat from stupendous drop to toothy jaws, with the hugely underrated Thomas Jane suffering exactly the same agony as Stallone of watching someone literally slip through his fingers. Harlin even makes sure that we get to see a fluffy toy - the very epitome of vulnerable innocence and, as it transpires, a rather useless comfort-item - slip from its perch on the girl's backpack and drop picturesquely into rocky oblivion, something that he had similarly done within the blasted and charred wreckage of a crashed plane in Die Hard 2 and then with the drowning teddy-bear in Deep Blue Sea. Does this guy love putting cuteness in extreme jeopardy, or what?

    Watching Sly shinny up a treacherous ice-wall, having first been stripped down to a tee-shirt is a corker, too. Check out his blizzard-frosted expression of frozen torment as he finally gets over the edge of a frozen waterfall and on to the shelf. The infamous “human fly” leap is over-the-top, for sure, but it gets you going. Stallone playing chicken with a helicopter - dangerously real, I should point add - is as gripping, scenically, as it is plot-wise. The sight of Gabe dodging grenades on a narrow ledge and then hurling a case of cash down into the subsequent avalanche is a classic, and the pendulum-swing from one rugged face to another, against the ticking clock, is another example of just how versatile a mountain can be in action terms.

    “You want to kill me, don't you, Tucker? Well, get a number and get in line.”

    Die Hard altered the course of cinematic villainy by actually not only creating a mastermind with a genuine personality in Alan Rickman's still unbested Hans Gruber but bestowing even the lowliest and barely-seen of his henchmen with a discernible and distinctive character. Harlin certainly took notice of this. Whilst Lithgow is not a very convincing bad guy - despite his earlier stab in De Palma's Raising Cain - and coupled with an English accent that he simply cannot maintain (he even comes to sound like Stewie Griffin from Family Guy, which just doesn't aid vicious scumbaggery at all) and winds-up being a much less formidable opponent than we would have expected Stallone to be pitted against, he does, at least, have psychotic smarm to fall back on. The air of aristocratic malevolence is theatrical and there is, on occasion, a delicious little frisson between himself and the team's lone Black Widow-like female member, which only serves to embellish a later scene with stark, refined cruelty. And it is pleasing to find that his gaggle of cut-throats have all been kitted-out with traits and attitudes too - though they are all still typically snarling knuckle-heads to a man. Harling had had some practice at this already, of course, with Die Harder, but those cronies were merely fodder for John McClane to dispose of and could barely be told apart - except for a pre-T1000 Robert Patrick.

    Here we have Caroline Goodall's ice-maiden Krystal, a cold-hearted femme fatale with an unlikely infatuation with the caddish Qualen. Then there is the massively aggravating inside-man, corrupted Federal Agent Travers, played with consistently bullish imbecility by Rex Linn, looking a lot like Jesse Ventura when padded-out in a snow-parka. But the real tension of the bad team is wrought about by the despicable assassin Kynette, vividly slashed across the screen by the provocatively and singularly monikered Leon. Commencing with sadistic barbs directed at Hal as well as others in his mercenary squad, Kynette is probably the most ruthless out of the entire lot of them. With brimstone eyes, some wicked knife-play and kicks devastating enough to have our heroic ranger renovate the interior of a mountain, he is the most formidable enemy that Gabe goes up against besides the elements themselves. The image of him advancing towards a rib-crunched Stallone, knuckle-duster/knife combo in hand, stringy blood issuing from his cracked lips is even more authentically chilling than the frigid slopes.

    Britain's first real stab at fostering a beef 'n' brawn cinematic macho man, Craig Fairbrass, seen here as Qualen's mouthy goon, Delmar, is something of a failed attempt, though. Pre-Jason Statham and Ray Stephenson, Fairbrass looks and acts like a slightly less intimidating, and largely unsung, Nick Brimble (Who Dares Wins, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves). Loitering about in the snow-bound strand of foul-mouthed villainy, practically joined to Rooker's hip, he snarls and sneers and produces that East end accent with suitable relish, but when it comes to the actual hard stuff, even he has to bow down to the pulverising might of Leon. His one big moment, actually a face-off that we have been anticipating for quite some time, is appropriately vicious and gleefully gratuitous, but is woefully hamstrung by his character's utterly ridiculous predilection for gobbing-off about his football prowess. Harlin claims that this was a riff upon English soccer hooliganism, but it smacks of a screenplay struggling to give him a persona to match his accent.

    “It amazes me, in this day and age, when a man would put money before the personal safety of himself and his bitch. But, as you go to your grave, know that I will treat the bitch right!

    Although many have become cloyingly obvious and fake-looking with the passage of time and technology, there are still enough reasonably good looking visual shots to have us believing that Sly is really hanging off dizzyingly sheer cliff walls - something that would be taken to spectacular new degrees for Tom Cruise during the opening of M:I-2 when director John Woo seemed to have forgotten to utilise any CG and just sent the human grin up the rock-face for real - where, no doubt, the wind was all the better to tousle his silky-soft hair, eh? With the real location not supplying enough snow, height or impressively frightening views (!), the production was filmed extensively in the Italian Alps, and by adding the odd Americanised gas station, timber lodge and signpost, Harlin and his crew actually manage to convince us that this is, indeed, the Colorado Rockies. Ice-covered sets had to be created for some sequences and, occasionally, these do stick out like a sore thumb. The frozen pool set, for instance, is a cheerful throwback to the likes of Ice Station Zebra or even Logan's Run with its preternatural, stillborn neatness and tranquility. But Harlin, with plentiful aid from green screens and optical effects, really does present a perilous, high-rise adventure that I don't believe has been topped since. He takes advantage of every tactic that was available back then to wrap a scenic and rugged extravaganza around us, bringing the environment right back at you and smothering it with rogue bravado. A great little throwaway shot has the camera pull back to reveal Qualen and his increasingly more anxious mob moving along a precipitous ridge whilst Gabe and Jesse, unseen by them and almost by us too, parallel them a hundred feet below on a dangerous narrow ledge, totally proving Gabe's inherent harmony with the mountains and instinctive ability to traverse them. Harlin uses the terrain, whether manipulated by effects or by simply allowing the camera to survey them as they are, to superlative effect. But you have to love that up-the-wall shot from a gun-toting baddie to a just-unleashed Gabe sixty feet above him, accomplished by a remote-controlled camera on a rail bolted to the cliff. When analysed clinically, Cliffhanger offers absolutely nothing new in narrative or thematic terms. But when it comes to sheer cathartic release and the totally embodiment of an environment, it is pretty much unbeatable. Okay, we've got Sly running about in all manner of revealing tops in temperatures that would make a Polar Bear throw a coat on top of the duvet, but the important thing to remember is that we actually feel the chills even if he is taking the heat from his muscular insulation a little bit too far. When we see him shake and shiver - with the sadistic aid of off-camera ice-water being hosed at him before the odd take - we genuinely feel the soul-numbing wind biting in. Stallone had battled the elements in First Blood, Rambo and even Rocky IV, but this was pushing him to limits that he had not gone to before. The great thing is that we can see it and almost believe it.

    “Gabe, where have you been?”

    “Oh, I've been hanging around.”

    It is not surprising that Harlin opted to call on composer Trevor Jones to provide some rousing music for the film. Jones had been responsible for the absolutely wonderful action score for Michael Mann's The Last Of The Mohicans (BD release soon, please!), alongside Randy Edelman, who fashioned the more sedate period evocation for its gentler moments, so his credentials for outdoor heroics were highly sought after. But the resulting score, as good as it is, is too much of a combination of his own main Mohicans theme from the year before and even Alan Silvestri's distinctive Predator sound, too. And, to further cement this association with John McTiernan's ace jungle bodycount thrill-ride, we get a very similar sequence to when Ramirez fires off a few grenades up the side of a hill outside the guerilla camp and sets off a landslide, when an angry goon performs virtually the same trick here and brings a mountain down upon his own head.

    Derivative and by-the-numbers, Cliffhanger may be, but it remains awesomely exciting and lives up to its title so utterly and completely that you are positively breathless by the end of it, and possibly even checking your fingertips for frostbite. Definitely a classic of its genre, Sly's mountain-rush is top-tier entertainment of the highest calibre and a vivid showcase for the superstar's inimitable style and charisma.

    You know what you want from a film like this and Cliffhanger more than delivers. Highly recommended for lovers of extreme thrills, spills and chills.