Cliffhanger (review)

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Go Shoot It on the Mountain

Cliffhanger is, according to the opening credits, “based on a premise by.” It’s not something that inspires a lot of confidence in a film. It makes me think a guy at a bar somewhere who’d just gotten to the drunken point when you’re convinced everything you say and think is sheer genius was struck with enlightenment and hastily scribbled “Die Hard on a mountain” on a cocktail napkin… and got a check with a lot of zeroes on it for this brainstorm. It seems like the ultimate expression of the menace of High Concept.

And so it is in execution, too. This rote and by-the-numbers contribution to the early-90s glut of big, loud, dumb action movies was momentarily thrilling on a big screen back in 1993. Now, though, in the wake of nearly a decade more of bad Die Hard knockoffs, it’s pretty dull.
A mountain rescue gone tragically wrong has left Colorado climber Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone: Cop Land, Rocky) unsure of himself. He hasn’t climbed in months, but now he has one chance to get back in the saddle — five hikers are reported stranded by a snowstorm, and his former partner and best bud Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker: The Bone Collector) is going after them. Gabe’s girlfriend Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner) goads Gabe with clichés like “Go ahead, leave. But if you don’t do this now, you’re gonna be stuck on that ledge for the rest of your life” — “that ledge” being the scene of the aforementioned tragedy. Gabe has lost his nerve, but he’ll get it back — he’s the hero here, after all. And all it will take is an airplane hijacking, a major international bank heist, kidnapping, and constant life-threatening danger.

The five hikers, see, are actually in the middle of pulling a U.S. Treasury job that hasn’t gone quite according to plan, and they’ve ended up crash-landed in Gabe and Hal’s rescue territory with several large suitcase stuffed with $1000 bills scattered all over the mountains. And Gabe and Hal, since they know the area, are going to help them find the money, whether they like it or not.

Snow! Wind! Cold! Sheer rock faces! Automatic weapons! Nature is a dangerous place, especially when populated by bad guys with fake English accents and inadequate catchphrases, like Eric Qualen (John Lithgow: Don Quixote, Footloose). Qualen is allegedly ex-military intelligence, but he behaves rather stupidly — he lets Gabe get away when a simple threat to kill Hal would have brought him back. Where are villains getting their training these days? It’s sad, really, the lack of professionalism and pride amongst our criminal class.

Cliffhanger is directed by Renny Harlin, so it’s a sure bet that there’ll be some good action mixed in with the boring stuff, and that’s the case here. Early in the film, Qualen’s team transfers the luggage full of cash from one plane to another in mid air — pretty cool. But then a whole bunch of tedious stuff pads out the midsection — lots of walking through snow and climbing over rocks and hiking. This may, in fact, be the hikingest movie since the deep hurting inflicted upon the MST3K guys by The Lost Continent.

Still, the mountain setting means various henchmen get to fall from 4000 feet instead of merely 30 stories. Maybe Harlin was mad that he missed directing Die Hard and got stuck with Die Hard 2: Die Hard in Terminal B — maybe he said to himself, We don’t need no stinking skyscrapers. Henchmen scream a lot longer when they nosedive off a mountain.

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