Directed by Renny Harlin. Starring Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow, Michael Rooker, Janine Turner, Rex Linn, Caroline Goodall, Leon, Max Perlich, Paul Winfield, Ralph Waite. (1993, R, 118 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 4, 1993
Breathtaking to look at, Cliffhanger's tale of rock jocks caught up in a Treasury Department heist gone bad, real bad, is a great action thriller. It grabs you by the viscera in the opening prologue and for the next two hours rarely lets go. The action is well-constructed, never dull or repetitious. And despite the outrageousness of the caper, the action itself remains logical and coherent. (The greatest liberties seem to be taken with technical feats involving distances traversed and the actual time involved.) Stallone is surrounded in this movie by lots of high-caliber talents which the filmmakers unfortunately seem to have confused with high-caliber drama. Cliffhanger is at its weakest when it pauses for dramatic moments. Those moments become like little playlets on the peaks seeking to imbue the story with more psychology than is really necessary to drive this thing. The story is shaped like a standard Stallone drama in which his character must redeem himself through courage and boundless physical stamina from the curse of some earlier mistake that haunts his life. Thus, we have a corker of an opening sequence but instead of it simply serving to bring the audience to full attention, it's used to establish Stallone's overwhelming guilt, the animosity between himself and his buddy Hal (Rooker) and the flight from his relationship with his girlfriend Jessie (Turner of Northern Exposure, who coincidentally is cast as a helicopter pilot once again). There are many other superb actors here, like Lithgow, Winfield and Perlich who all have far too little to do. Cliffhanger's villains are despicably vile inventions marked by callous amorality. Arch-villain Lithgow's sardonic humor and dark wit are occasionally evidenced but too often under-employed. No matter how many goods actors surround Stallone, it's still his remarkable presence that's the main attraction. His ruggedly muscled physiognomy is as much a part of the landscape as the mountains themselves. The movie's resounding triumph is the setting. It leaves you constantly torn between the thrill of gut-busting absorption and amazement over how they did what they just did. Director Harlin (Die Hard 2) has proven himself as a top-notch action director. And though there is a lot of unspeakable violence in Cliffhanger, where else are you ever going to witness a death by stalactite?