Tuesday, August 17, 2010

'Cliffhanger' is a mountain of excitement

Cliffhanger (1993)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Michael Rooker, John Lithgow, Janine Turner, and Rex Linn
Director: Renny Harlin
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a mid-air heist goes wrong and three cases full of $1,000 bills are dropped onto remote peaks of the Rocky Mountains, members of a search-and-rescue team (Rooker, Stallone, and Turner) are forced to help the murderous criminals retrieve them.

"Cliffhanger" is at its best during its opening rescue scene. Perhaps more-so than any other film, director Renny Harlin manages to capture the soaring peaks and terrifyingly deep canyons of mountains, both with excellent cinematography and performances from his actors. It's also a scene that contains the only real surprise in the film... and the first time you see it, you will be shocked.

While the mountain-climbing sequences, shoot-outs, explosions, and helicopter crashes are all very exciting, Harlan never manages to quite reach the artistry and suspense present in that opening scene. It's all extremely well done, and it all adds up to a great movie--one of the best Harlin has helmed, and one of the best of Stallone and Rooker's respective careers--but it still doesn't manage to top the mountain climbing scenes from Clint Eastwood's 1975 "The Eiger Sanction," where the dizzying heights and frightful plunges remain a constant and real threat. Here, they are more like book-ends--present at the film's beginning and briefly returning at the end--even though there are climbing scenes throughout the film.

But, even if Harlin can't top his own opening, he does deliver a fast-paced and exciting movie... so fast-paced and exciting that you'll hardly have time to consider some of the illogic and foolish behavior on the part of a number of characters. (The one exception to this will be when the psychotic villain played by Lithgow orders Stallone to throw a backpack from a cliff into an airborn helicopter. Even if the script was written that way, I would have thought the crew [which includes co-screenwriter Sylvester Stallone] would have been observant enough to recognize that the wind created by the helicopter blades would make such a toss very difficult if not impossible.)

From a filmmaking standpoint, "Cliffhanger" also shows the importance of shooting on location, as well as the fact that nine times out of ten, if you want a stunt scene to look realistic, you need live stunt men and actors dealing with real props and/or locations. There are very few of the mountain scenes shot on sound stages in this movie, and there are even fewer, if any, that use green screens and other digital trickery. Although movies are all about making the fake look real, when reality is the starting point, more reality is present in the end-product. And the fact that actors, stunt-people, and film crew were all actually working in snowy wilderness gives the film a sense of reality that computer artists and set builders will probably never be able to match.

Performance-wise, everyone featured is at the top of their game. Stallone gets to show some range without going over the top--the action hero hamming in this film is done by Michael Rooker--and Janine Turner steps away from the bubble-headed roles of her early career toward the portrayal of a strong and resourceful woman that would make her a star on the 1990s television series "Northern Exposure." Meanwhile, John Lithgow over-acts like he's never over-acted before, but he's still pitch-perfect as the psychotic criminal mastermind who will kill anyone who not only stands between him and his misplaced millions, but also anyone who stands near them, just because. It's the kind of villain that made movies of this type so much fun, and Lithgow does a great job.

"Cliffhanger" is an under appreciated entry on the resumes of everyone involved, partly due to the fact that the director is responsible for a number of truly awful films. But if you enjoy the action movies of the 1990s, or Stallone's more recent effort "The Expendables", this is a must-see.

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