Who doesn't remember the terrifying opening from Cliffhanger? It's iconic. We start with an aerial view of the breathtaking serenity and majesty of the Rocky Mountains when Hal (Michael Rooker) injures his knee and Gabe (Sylvester Stallone) is sent to rescue him and his girlfriend Sarah (Michelle Joyner) from 'the tower'. Only the rescue doesn't go according to plan, and Gabe subsequently finds himself holding Sarah's life in his hands, literally. I've no doubt that this opening sequence gave an entire generation acrophobia and vertigo in much the same way Jaws gave an entire generation thalassophobia, now there's a word I don't get to use everyday. It's a powerful, primal and evocative moment that will shatter a tight bond between a group of friends almost irrevocably. Overwhelmed by guilt and shame, Gabe leaves everyone, including his girlfriend Jessie (Janine Turner) for the best part of a year only to return to try persuade her to move away with him.
It's then that we cut to an audacious and precarious aerial robbery that's foiled halfway through as three bags of loot is scattered over the Rocky Mountains. Finding themselves in need of a guide, the terrorists, led by the ruthless Qualen (John Lithgow) send out a distress call to which both Gabe and Hal respond to, only to find themselves taken hostage and forced to track down the terrorists money for them knowing that their disposable witnesses the second they find their money for them.
You could easily liken Cliffhanger to Die Hard, just trade in Nakatomi Tower for the Rocky Mountains and there you have it, more or less, but I don't think that's fair, one man taking on many is hardly unique to Die Hard. What I do like about Gabe though is that he's not an ex special forces soldier, or a cop, or a marine, he's just a climber, and an incredible climber at that. Gabe also has to overcome his own personal fears and get back on the mountains, and as he does he manages to escape and sets about rescuing his friend, maybe Gabe sees this as his chance at redemption.
Gabe slowly begins to turn the tables on the terrorists through his intimate knowledge of the mountains, their situation, knowing where the money is, and through his sheer cunning and ingenuity as well. The stunts in Cliffhanger are truly amazing too, the things they do in this movie is mind-blowing, and for the most part, they're real. The action is intense, brutal and is often crafted around the Rocky Mountains themselves, utilizing certain elements and dangers of the mountains to their advantage. The score is very memorable and captures the broad and wondrous mountain landscapes beautifully, but then in the action sequences specifically, the score suddenly gets very generic and bland, there's a strange dichotomy going on there that needed some more work done.
Despite the incredibly tense and horrifyingly relatable opening sequence, who doesn't empathize with Sarah on some level? Cliffhanger does take some time to really find its stride, the pacing and editing are a bit sloppy in parts. There's some obvious model planes, rudimentary composition and noticeably fake sets, but given the scale and scope of the movie, that would have been hard to avoid. The acting was strong all around, even if John Lithgow was hamming it up, and all the other villains definitely left an impression as well, I loved to hate them and I felt immense satisfaction when those fuckers were dealt with.
I would have liked to have seen more of a reconciliation between Gabe and Hal at some point though, it's obvious that they're on good terms by the end, but we're not given much to go off. A simple look of acknowledgement between the two of them indicating that Hal finally forgave Gabe would have been good enough, but that never happens. Admittedly Cliffhanger can be a little rough around the edges, some tighter editing would have helped it, but flaws and all, I still find it to be one of the most underrated action movies of the 90s.
Written by - The Sentry - 19/07/2015