25 years ago today, Cliffhanger heralded the Memorial Day weekend and the start of the summer movie season, back when such seasons waited until Memorial Day to begin. Today, Cliffhanger’s opening day falls on Memorial Day itself. Do we think they wanted to make an action movie called Cliffhanger and then came up with something related to cliffs and mountains? Had to be title first, right?
An airborne treasury heist goes wrong and drops the money over the Rockies. So Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) and his crew crash land and call a rescue team. Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) goes looking for redemption, and his old climbing buddy Hal (Michael Rooker) confronts him. When Qualen takes Hal hostage to force Gabe to help them find the money, Walker turns out to be their worst nightmare. Or maybe Qualen’s the disease and Gabe is the cure. Anyway, Gabe’s gonna do what he gotta do and nobody can tell him he can’t do what he gotta do.
It’s Die Hard on a mountain. Neither Gabe nor Qualen are going anywhere til they work out this money/hostage situation. Most importantly there are lots of things for Stallone to lift or hang onto while he grimaced and screams!
This was one of the first big examples of digital wire removal. It allowed shots of Stallone hanging off a mountain by one hand, while really safely harnessed in to wires that could be painted over. It’s still impressive. You could give me 100 wires and I’m not hanging over a mountain.
When was the last action movie that opened with the hero causing (or at least failing to prevent) the death of an innocent? That used to be backstory 101 but these days no filmmaker is going to risk making the hero unlikeable. I still don’t understand why they didn’t just send down a harness and pull the stranded climbers up to the helicopter. Why would you park the helicopter across a 4000 foot chasm to let a novice climber cross by herself? Was pulley technology too primitive to just lift her up?
I guess three of the Bourne movies open with Jason failing to save someone. In only one case is it someone he’s responsible for. The other two got themselves involved. Anyway, the opening scene of Gabe failing to save Hal’s girlfriend Sarah (Michelle Joyner) became iconic, so much so that Ace Ventura spoofed it in his sequel. The movie got in front of everyone’s worst fear going into Cliffhanger and ripped that Band-Aid right off.
I love how they set up three briefcases so the action is structured around each one. Each one is disposed of in a unique way too. Spoiler alert, they’re not carrying two cases with them in the finale.
If they were working backwards from the title, the screenwriters certainly came up with plenty of unique action to occur on a mountain. It’s a good balance of natural peril and bad guy peril. The practical stuntwork is truly thrilling, from the air to air hijacking that Simon Crane really did, to hanging a helicopter off the side of a mountain for the finale. Fight scenes show Qualen’s men truly underestimating the mountain. Sure, Stallone is stronger than any of them to begin with, but he wins by knowing the mountain better than they do.
Even in the Rocky Mountains, they found ways to make Cliffhanger a monument to Stallone’s physique. It opens in the summer so he can climb and flex in a unitard. Then even in the frozen winter, the bad guys make him climb without his jacket. He’d probably die of hypothermia before he reached the summit but it’s worth it to suspend disbelief. You wouldn’t wanna cover up Stallone’s guns in parkas for the whole movie.
Lithgow was the best villain since Alan Rickman. He is having fun being evil. His crew is full of memorable henchmen, and women like Kristel (Caroline Goodall). There’s Leon as the guncrazy Kynette and Rex Linn as the sniveling suit Travers, and Craig Fairbrass as beefy foreign dude Delmar. Sorry to the henchmen who got dispatched before they could establish a quirk. I loved ya’ but I hardly knew ya’.
I liked Janine Turner as an action heroine. She played a capable mountain rescue worker. Okay, she freaked out in the cave of bats but that seemed more like a human thing than a girl thing. After Cliffhanger, by the time she finished Northern Exposure, she was playing moms in movies. At least she got to be the ultimate mom as June Cleaver in the Leave it to Beaver movie, but I would’ve totally bought her in more action movies. She’s not a fighter but this was still pre Buffy and Alias.
Hal gets the rough end of the stick. Every time he warns innocent bystanders to run, they still get shot by the bad guys. You’d think if he just said nothing, they’d have at least a 50/50 shot of going about their business, but they establish Qualen wasn’t going to waste time talking strangers out of the way. Still, they could’ve given Hal one win.
They really make you love Frank (Ralph Waite). His bad paintings that the guys humor him for endear him in the beginning so that you really worry for him when he flies to the scene later on.
Cliffhanger was a comeback for Stallone. He tried retiring Rocky but Rocky V left people on a sour note that had to be rectified decades later. He tried to do comedy but those ended up being Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Stallone got the message and went back to action, and it began a solid run of Stallone films. None would be as successful as Cliffhanger, but Demolition Man, The Specialist and Assassins followed. Judge Dredd did too but I can’t begrudge him for trying. It seemed like a good idea for a new franchise.
It was peak Renny Harlin (see what I did there?) too. The director graduated to Die Hard 2 on the strength of The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. After the success of Cliffhanger, he would use his clout to make the female action heroine movies Cutthroat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Cutthroat bankrupted Carolco, the producers of Cliffhanger, but it shouldn’t have. Harlin kept working at the studio level for a while. Some hit, some got buried. Now it seems like the Chinese film industry appreciates Harlin’s brand of action.
Cliffhanger began a very powerful summer too. Jurassic Park would follow. I will still defend Last Action Hero, but nobody’s going to argue with In the Line of Fire and The Fugitive. Back in 1993, Cliffhanger was just an appetizer.