Sylvester Stallone transitioned nicely from ’80s cheese to ’90s action without being trapped in the generic Jean-Claude Van Damme/Steven Seagal cycle of things. Mostly because he’s a much stronger talent, always walking the line between critical darling and by-the-numbers action star. But perhaps having more of a hand in the finished product helped as well.
In 1993’s Cliffhanger, Stallone plays Ranger Gabe Walker, a professional mountain climber and part of a rescue team in the Colorado Rockies. Eventually he, along with his team, gets roped into a fake distress call by a group of criminal skyjackers led by John Lithgow as mastermind Eric Qualen.
Cliffhanger recreates certain elements of other popular action films, particularly Die Hard, but does more than enough things differently to justify its existence. Notably, the stunts are visually breathtaking and truly nail-biting, especially the heist early on when Qualen’s crew robs a US Treasury plane carrying $100 million in cash. The plan goes awry and the plane crash lands in the Rockies, but the three briefcases of money are scattered over a 2 mile radius. Qualen decides to essentially kidnap Gabe and fellow ranger Hal (Michael Rooker) using them as mountain experts to help track down the money.
There’s a lot of tension between Gabe and Hal, his former best friend. In the film’s opening sequence Hal and his girlfriend are stranded at the top of a 4,000-foot mountain. Hal injured his knee and can’t climb back down himself, so Gabe and his team are rescuing them via helicopter. After an issue with the cable, Hal’s girlfriend horrifically plummets to her death. Hal resents Gabe for the accident. Gabe blames himself and, in true Stallone fashion, decides to go away for a few months to think. When he comes back, his first encounter with Hal is amidst this whole mountain kidnapping situation. Talk about tension.
The film doesn’t quite give us a concrete conclusion to the two friends’ beef, but concludes things in its own way. We’re simply not used to a subtextual resolution in a Stallone movie (he also co-wrote the script), which always seems to wrap things up perfectly.
You can tell that he and co-writer Michael France tend to fall in love with their dialogue, using these made-up truisms even when they’re not always relevant just because they sound insightful. But those same writers give us a beautifully kinetic story with many twists and turns and unpredictable plot points.
Stallone is old reliable here, portraying a character with slightly more vulnerabilities than usual, making for a more believable matchup with Lithgow, who serves as a truly terrifying villain, even though he should be at a gross disadvantage against Stallone’s physical prowess.
Cliffhanger isn’t your cheap action-thriller. The film has the heart of a typical Stallone film, but doesn’t wrap up every bit of conflict with a bow like usual either (for better or worse). Character decisions aren’t stupid; they’re noble, if not understandable. A good action-thriller finds a way to give us an adrenaline rush while simultaneously tapping into our emotions, fully investing us in its leads. This one delivers well on both accounts, and then some, making its way towards the top of its genre.
Double Feature With:
Over the Top (1987)