1993 was a big, big year for action movies. After becoming the biggest movie star in the world with the success of T2, Arnold Schwarzenegger flew too close to the sun with Last Action Hero. Jean-Claude Van Damme released both the underrated Nowhere to Run and Hard Target (part of F This Movie Fest 4!), which is particularly notable for being the movie that brought legendary Hong Kong director John Woo to the United States. Bruce Willis was treading mediocre water in Striking Distance. Movies like In the Line of Fire and The Fugitive offered more "adult" alternatives to the traditional action film, while martial arts competitions were being represented all over the place thanks to movies like Only the Strong, Best of the Best 2 and Sidekicks. And prior to enhancing his calm as the star of the great Demolition Man (also part of F This Movie Fest 4!), Sylvester Stallone had his biggest hit in years with Cliffhanger.
Die Hard rip-offs) but because it did so on such a big, beautiful scale. There are plenty of shots that are faked by shooting on a stage or via rear-projection, but so much of the movie was filmed in practical locations -- the Alps of Northern Italy, to be exact -- that it heightens the sense of danger and, if nothing else, allows us to admire the scenery, something very few action movies ever do. Despite hitting so many recognizable beats, it feels in many ways like its own thing.
Stallone plays Gabe Walker, rescue ranger and mountain climber extraordinaire who experiences tragedy in the movie's opening moments when an accident leads to the death best friend and fellow ranger Hal Tucker's (Michael Rooker) girlfriend. Months go by and the two do not speak; Gabe is no longer climbing and lives in what appears to be self-imposed isolation. One day, a group of terrorists led by Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) rob a U.S. Treasury plane in mid-air, but their money falls from the sky and crashes on the mountains below. They take Hal hostage and force Gabe out of retirement to help recover the suitcases full of cash. But because Gabe is played by Sylvester Stallone, he has other plans for the terrorists. His plans involve murder. He kills the shit out of all of them.
Cliffhanger is the movie that taught me an important lesson: sometimes size matters. I know I've told this story on the podcast before, but when I saw the movie back in 1993 it was in 70mm on one of the largest screens in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. The photography was stunning, the action breathless, the sound explosive. This experience, combined with the fact that I was starved for a good Stallone action movie after a few years of disappointment, convinced me that Cliffhanger REALLY WORKED. It was a fun, violent time at the movies.
"You want to kill me, don't you Tucker? Well take a number and get in line."
"I wasn't born to die on a fucking mountain!"
"I wanted you to go to your grave knowing I'm going to treat the bitch right."
Or, most famously...
"Remember, shithead -- keep your arms...and legs...inside the vehicle...at all times!"
That last one is the wordiest bad guy send-off line in history. It does not work. Neither does Lithgow's turn as British baddie Eric Qualen. The choice to make him English was a terrible one, both because Lithgow's accent isn't great and because the Eurotrash villain was far too played out in post-Gruber action cinema. There's nothing threatening about him in practice; he's just an accent and a smug attitude and a bunch of garbage one-liners. So there were some years in the '90s when that shitty bus viewing left a bad taste and I dismissed Cliffhanger as being well-dressed junk. This is because I was an asshole for some years in the '90s. Nowadays I see so much junk that I must appreciate it when it is well-dressed. Besides, if there's anything that my writing at F This Movie! has demonstrated again and again, it is that I like junk. There is an art to making good junk, and Cliffhanger is good, artful junk.
Made for a hefty $65 million (which is slightly more than the reported budget for Jurassic Park released the same year, and that movie featured state-of-the-art special effects that brought DINOSAURS TO LIFE), Cliffhanger eventually grossed $255 million worldwide to become the seventh highest-grossing movie of 1993. It was a huge movie in every way. Unfortunately, Stallone was unable to capitalize on its success and went back to a series of disappointments that either incorrectly used his persona or else failed to recognize the seismic shift experienced by the action genre in the '90s. One man armies like Stallone were no longer in fashion. Guys like him and Schwarzenegger and Seagal were no longer the draws that they once were, and Stallone would spend much of the rest of the decade struggling to find his place in Hollywood. It wasn't until he began starring in a series of nostalgia-fueled throwback vehicles that either brought back his best-loved characters (Rambo, Rocky Balboa) or celebrated the greatst hits of '80s action (the Expendables franchise) that Stallone would find his footing again. In that regard, Cliffhanger represents the last best hour of Stallone 1.0.
That scene? That's Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
The rest of the movie follows Stallone as he recovers from that tragedy. His confidence is shattered. He is vulnerable. Afraid. The real-life baggage that he brings into Cliffhanger makes for one of Stallone's more interesting performances, as he feels genuinely bruised and humbled and hungry for a hit. Gabe's broken faith, coupled with the film's Die Hard-inspired premise, make Stallone the underdog for the first time since the original Rocky. It's a persona that suits him better than, say, the cocksure preening of a Ray Tango. Gabe Walker has more in common with Stallone's best characters (early Rocky Balboa, the John Rambo of First Blood, Cop Land's Freddie Heflin), and his gradual reemergence as a kickass action hero is one of Cliffhanger's greatest pleasures.
When the action movie dust of the '90s finally settled, somehow Cliffhanger remained standing as one of the decade's most memorable efforts -- not best, necessarily, but most memorable. Renny Harlin directs the movie entirely with his dick, Alex Thomson's mountain photography is great, the practical stunt work is amazing, even Trevor Jones' syrupy theme makes me happy in the way that it's reminiscent of the "pretty" parts of James Horner's Commando score. But the best thing about it is the way that it mirrors Stallone's own journey in the early '90s. It brought him back, if only for a little while.
Got an action movie you'd like to see discussed in a future Heavy Action column? Let us know in the comments below!
2 days until F This Movie Fest 4!