Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cliffhanger (1993)

Hang on!

"Cliffhanger" is one of those movies where the suspense sequences and action stunts outweigh everything else by a landslide (pardon the pun). There's really not much to the development of characters or plot, except that the movie uses the script as an excuse to put its characters in extremely dangerous situations one after another. On this ground, it works splendidly, and while the story and characterization are weak, there are still some good performances turned in by the cast.

The movie sets itself up with the promised white-knuckle action in a sequence that brings on the tension but fails to move us emotionally. On his way to retrieve his best friend, Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker) and his girlfriend, Sarah, from a 4,000 peak, Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) makes an attempt to rescue Sarah after she begins falling, without success. Hal blames it on Gabe, and Gabe's own self-torment keeps him from town and from his own love, Jessie (Janine Turner). This move, while meant to establish emotion and character depth, doesn't do a whole lot for the script.

The movie then transfers us to a U.S. treasury plane, where three cases of money, in bills unusable except by a select group of people in the world, are being flown across the country. The plane is soon hijacked by a group of terrorists, led by Eric Qualen (John Lithgow). However, his plans are ruined once they lose the cases at high altitude and crash in the Rocky Mountains, where they call for help under the guise of being in danger.

Sparing the rest of the movie's twists and turns, once Gabe and Hal arrive on the scene, they are taken hostage and forced to climb mountains and hike through forests to find the three cases of money, soon bringing more people into the situation than the movie calls for.

The movie chooses to focus more on the action than on the story itself, which really isn't that bad a move. From the high-altitude stunts to the white-knuckle suspense generated by the scenes charged with high-octane suspense, the movie doesn't lose its ability to get our attention with actors hanging on the edges of cliffs and mountains, holding on for dear life.

The tension generated by the terrorists is, at best, mediocre. Even under the shadow of leader Lithgow, whose flair for turning a colorful phrase at every moment is funny yet unsettling, the movie never really gives us any reason to fear the henchmen along for the climb. There are certain moments, such as that in which the only black terrorist hunts Gabe and Jessie in a cavern, or when Gabe is trapped beneath an ice-covered lake. However, the only people the terrorists knock off we aren't given too much time to know, so what reason do we have to care?

Stallone is back in fine form, the action hero we've always admired from his earlier "Rocky" days. He's required to carry a lot of the heroism on his shoulders, and big as those shoulders are, that is no easy task. Yet, he is able to pull it off, with the help of Rooker and Turner, who give jobs well done in their roles.

While not the best action film ever made, "Cliffhanger" is a commendable piece of suspense that works due to its breathtaking action sequences and the altitude of its settings. It tends to drag in places, but really, with a movie that's so focused on getting us into a sweat, what does it matter?

If you want to kick-start a Stallone collection, this set is a good way to do it.

Sylvester Stallone: 4 Film Favorites
(Tango & Cash / Demolition Man /
The Specialist / Over the Top)

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