Celebrating its UK release’s 25th Anniversary, “Cliffhanger” saw Sylvester Stallone return to the genre which had nurtured him after the critical and artistic losing streak which started with “Rocky V” and hit rock bottom with “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot”. Teaming up with action director for hire Renny Harlin, Stallone delivered a stripped-back high concept, low tech action adventure with spectacular stuntwork against equally spectacular scenery.
When a mid-air heist of a US Treasury plane carrying $100million of uncirculated currency goes wrong, international terrorist Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) must search the Rocky Mountains for the lost loot. In order to do so, he takes a pair of mountain rescue climbers hostage: Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) and his estranged best friend Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker).
Stallone’s career-saving action pivot opens with a touching homage to the opening of “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” but instead of Spock turning up in rocket boots, it’s Hal’s girlfriend plunging down to give us the requisite lingering resentment for our two heroes to reconcile in manly fashion while taking out the terrorists one by one. Think of it as Yondu and Stakar: the early years.
It never rises above the level of “Die Hard”-on-a-mountain, but then again it has no ambitions to. Instead, it focusses on delivering on that concept as well as it can. The nonsensical plot regarding money which at various times is described as specialised $1,000 bills for international currency transactions (like those kinds of transactions are carried out in wedges of cash) and, bizarrely, ‘unexchangeable denominations’ (in which case, why steal them?) has only one purpose: to put John Lithgow’s moustache-twirlingly cartoonish terrorist and his cliched band on henchmen on that mountain.
The physical stunt work is breathtakingly good, and the scenery makes spectacular cinematography easy. So good in fact you tend to forgive the movie its ridiculous inconsistencies as Lithgow and his band of not so merry men traverse the mountains with no specialist equipment, training or clothing while Stallone and Rooker use every ounce of their skill and knowledge just to keep up.
While the concept is literally high, the dialogue is low, from the ‘totally tubular’ stock adrenaline junkie characters to Lithgow’s scenery-chewing villain who, by the end, is just spitting out random gnomic non-sequiturs. But even he’s a step above his henchman who seem to have side bets on which of them can demonstrate the shortest temper or most ludicrously inappropriate macho bullshit to pull.
But this is Stallone’s show and, back in his wheelhouse after a couple of years in the wilderness, he revels in the opportunity. Of course, the best (of 1993 Stallone) was yet to come, but things were very much back on track.