Though the tongue-in-cheek title speaks for itself, Cliffhanger had a memorable trailer not long before it hit theaters in 1993—so memorable that it became the subject of a self-admiring DVD extra hosted by director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2). To the strains of Orff's Carmina Burana, Mozart's Requiem and Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, Sylvester Stallone scurried around snowy peaks and stuff blowed up real good. Conclusion? "Hang On!" With that kind of come on, Cliffhanger couldn't (and didn't) miss at the box office. Whether it knows it or not, Cliffhanger is campy fare, but it's entertaining enough on its own willfully dumb level (a level of roughly 10,000 feet).
In the film's opening sequence, the Rocky Mountain Rescue team—Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone), Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker), Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner) and good ol' Frank (Ralph Waite)—tragically fail to complete a rescue, causing Gabe to quit out of guilt and Hal to hold a grudge against his former partner. Eight months later, Gabe comes back to try to patch things up with Jessie, his girlfriend when he suddenly, shamefully skipped town. His visit coincides with a crisis: a group of climbers in distress in a remote area of the mountains. That would be reason enough to beg the help of super-climber Gabe, but the problem turns out to be much worse: the climbers aren't climbers at all, but a band of ruthless English thieves with $100 million of uncirculated US currency stolen from the U.S. Treasury Department. Suffice it to say that Gabe takes plenty of punishment on his way to saving the day.
Screenwriters Michael France and Stallone—no doubt with a big assist from Harlin—push credibility beyond its limits. A notorious example: the plot contrives to get Stallone in a bicep-baring T-shirt, then plunges him into ice-cold water (the word "hypothermia" is never even mentioned). And the acting is straight out of melodrama. John Lithgow gives one of his least impressive performances as head baddie Eric Qualen (his English accent doesn't nearly pass the smell test), but as a moustache-twirling turn, it works. As the antagonist Hal, Rooker is way off his game, overacting as if to reach the back row of the theater. One supposes that two extreme skydivers (one played, in a bit of ridiculous miscasting, by Drugstore Cowboy's Max Perlich!) are meant as comic relief, while Turner, Waite and Paul Winfield are asked to play stereotypes (poor Turner is framed alternatingly as a capable independent woman and a squealing damsel in distress, according to the plot's demands). Stallone is, of course, his own stereotype, an immovable force of movie nature.
For all this—and despite the fact that the movie's palpable unreality erodes genuine tension—Cliffhanger can be pretty damn exciting from time to time. All the clambering around mountaintops looks pretty convincing and the climax is very impressively staged by Harlin and his stunt crew. So as preposterous as this "Die Hard on a mountain" flick is, Cliffhanger remains one of the zestier big-budget action pictures of the nineties.
Cliffhanger looks terrific in its Blu-ray debut from Sony. For a film of its vintage, this one looks surprisingly good, with vibrant color and excellent detail. Much of the picture's "pop" owes to the extensive outdoor photography in bright daylight and amongst white peaks and blue skies. Not faring quite so well are the scenes shot on soundstages or incorporating old-school special effects, but even these sequences look better than expected. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is even better, smoothly amplifying the exciting music and action effects while never sacrificing clarity of dialogue; this is a track capable of delivering the loud goods and also setting the scene with subtle ambience.
The Blu-ray edition retains DVD extras including a usefully fact-packed commentary with director Renny Harlin and Sylvester Stallone, recorded separately. A technical crew commentary with editor Frank Urioste, co-visual effects supervisors Neil Krepela and John Bruno, and production designer John Vallone will appeal more to film-school students than the casual viewer, but it's a great addition on that technical score.
"A Personal Introduction from Renny Harlin" (4:53, SD) incorporates interview footage with Stallone and Janine Turner.
Two "Deleted Scenes" (8:18, SD) come with an intro by Harlin
"Stallone on the Edge: The Making of Cliffhanger" (20:03, SD) includes plenty of set footage as well as interviews with Stallone (wearing his Judge Dredd duds!), Turner, John Lithgow, Harlin, editor Frank J. Urioste, stunt coordinator Joel Kramer, producer Alan Marshall, Michael Rooker, climb coordinator Mike Weis, and safety & climbing director Kevin Donald.
Two "Special Effects" (7:24, SD) featurettes examine "Sarah's Fall" and the "Helicopter Explosion" with comments from Harlin and Neil Krepela of Boss Films.
Also on hand are three "Storyboard Comparisons" (12:01, SD), the "Original Theatrical Trailer" (1:57, HD)—which also comes with an intro by Harlin (3:26, SD)—and movieIQ functionality (cast and music trivia) powered by BD-Live.
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