Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, August 10, 2015

THE SYLVESTER SEMESTER: Cliffhanger (1993)

Two trends that characterized blockbuster cinema in the nineties was a mid-decade revival of the disaster movie and the “Die Hard on an X” story type. The latter, where terrorists or criminals hold an isolated location hostage while a single hero fights back, was especially prevalent in the action movies of the time. Some times Hollywood’s thinking is sound. When two separate ideas make money, a combination of those ideas will make even more. “Cliffhanger” is essentially “Die Hard” on a mountain during an avalanche. It began life as “Gale Force,” which was “Die Hard’ in a coast town during a hurricane. Furthering the connection, “Die Hard 2” director Renny Harlin helmed the project. Instead of Bruce Willis, an even sturdier action icon was drafted to star: Sylvester Stallone. “Cliffhanger” would become the last huge hit Sly would have for a while, grossing 232 million in 1993 dollars. The movie was even popular enough to be referenced in another Forgotbuster, 1995’s “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.”

Mountain climbing expert Gabe Walker fails to rescue his best friend’s girlfriend during a climbing accident. Her death affects him greatly. Eight months later, a gang of criminals hi-jack a federal reserves plane. The mission goes wrong and three suitcases full of millions of dollars are lost among the Rocky Mountains. The crooks wind up taking Gabe’s friends hostage while they search the mountains for the loot. Gabe has to breach the avalanche-stricken peaks in order to rescue his friends and stop the bad guys.

In a world where “Gridlock” and “Skyscraper” exists, “Cliffhanger” is far from the most blatant “Die Hard” rip-off. By taking the story entirely out of a fixed location, it avoids many comparisons with the iconic flick. However, a few are unavoidable. The lone hero sneaking around, picking off the gang of bad guys one-by-one definitely brings John McClane’s adventures to mind. At least the movie forgoes the villainous robbers pretending to be anything but villainous robbers. What distinguishes “Cliffhanger” is its unique location. The many sweeping views of the mountains are gorgeous. It also provides a sense of genuineness and danger. When you have real people dangling from great heights, the severity of the situation is imposed on the audience. The avalanches adds an interesting angle to the film as well. The constant threat of the heroes and villains alike being buried in snow makes the movie stand apart from similar action flicks.

What also distinguished “Cliffhanger” is, of course, Stallone. Gabe Walker is a Type 1 Stallone hero, closer to Rocky Balboa or Deke DeSilvo then Marion Cobretti or Ray Tango. The opening death weighs heavily on Gabe’s conscious. His guilt ostracizes him from his friends. His confidence in his abilities as a climber are shaken. At the beginning, he’s crossing huge gaps while laughing and joking. Afterwards, Sly is grim and depressed throughout most of the film. He’s more vulnerable, which is shown in the scene where a henchman kicks the shit out of him. Throughout the film, Gabe recovers his strengths and heals his relationship with his friends. By the end, he’s even kicking the baddies in the face and quipping one-liners. Though the part is not exactly nuanced, it allows Sly to stretch his acting skills as well as his biceps.

Helping matters is an above average supporting cast. On a writing level, there’s nothing especially deep about the bad guys. However, some eccentric performances make them memorable. John Lithgow is in “Raising Cain”-psychopath mode as Qualen. Lithgow’s ridiculous British accent slips in and out of existence but he remains intimidating throughout. Rex Lin foams at the mouth while the singularly named Leon glares crazily as two of Qualen’s flunkies. Playing Sly’s love interest is the adorable Janine Turner, who proves useful but still gets captured at the end. Michael Rooker brings some huskiness to a thankless part. The movie even sneaks in reliable character actors Paul Winfield and Bruce McGill in tiny bit parts.

Renny Harlin is not exactly a genre genius but he has a certain likable style. The action remains at a fairly over-the-top level throughout. Within its opening minutes, a guy dives between two airplanes, for example. There’s more then a few dramatic dives between cliffs. Sly rides a guy down a mountain slope, scourging his face. One of the best action beats occur when, after getting kick around by a baddie, Stallone bench-presses him into a stalactite. The movie’s level of violence proves that R-rated tent poles still existed in 1993. Machine gun fire usually results in bloody squibs. Sly later blows holes in a guy with an illogical bolt gun. A final scuffle atop a floundering helicopter is nicely visceral. It’s worth seeing just for the unlikely sight of Dick Solomon putting John Rambo in a stranglehold.

“Cliffhanger” is a decent bit of action movie popcorn, nothing more and nothing less. The characters get the job done without being super unique. The story is strictly stock-parts. The action is bloody and creative while the direction is stylish and exciting. The score is also pretty good. Despite countless cable showings, the movie is far from a classic. The recent announcement of a remake was honestly baffling. It’s not like “Cliffhanger” holds much cultural cache. Nevertheless, it’s a fun Stallone vehicle and action thriller. [7/10]

[] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[X] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Social Outcast [Traumatized Mountain Climber]
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling

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