Cliffhanger (1993)

I have a new favorite Renny Harlin movie!

OK, I have a favorite Renny Harlin movie, where before I wouldn’t take free tickets to anything with his name on it. I associated him with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4Die Hard 2 and Lethal Weapon 2—the last of which he didn’t even direct (Richard Donner directed all four LWs) but it’s just how I thought of him: The guy who ruins franchises. Also, I knew he married Geena Davis and ruined her career with Cutthroat Island. And then did that awful shark movie.

This isn’t entirely fair. (Especially the Lethal Weapon thing.) But then, neither is life, especially when you’re trapped on a mountain by a madman bent on having you fetch his wads of fat cash from various snowy cliffsides.

Ugh.

Artist’s depiction of John Lithgow trying to give me tickets to see “Exorcist: The Beginning”.

Yep. It’s Die Hard On A Mountain. From the release of Die Hard (1988) for about the next 10-15 years, about 30% of all movies were Die Hard. There was Die Hard on a Boat (Under Siege), Die Hard on a Plane (Passenger 57), Die Hard On A Boat But On A Train (Under Siege 2: Dark Territory). Why there were even a couple of Die Hard In A Skyscraper But With Boobs: Skyscraper, and our own beloved Hard To Die which despite the title is actually a remake of Sorority House Massacre 2. For the piece d’resistance of this digression, there was in fact no Sorority House Massacre 1, so SHM2 is I guess the most original movie on this list.

In this variant, John Lithgow plays the evil genius who orchestrates a heist from a plane loaded with $1,000 bills (which, he knows a guy who can fence) but things go bad and suitcases full of cash go plummeting into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado…

…where our brooding hero is licking his wounds after letting his now alienated best pal’s (Michael Rooker of Guardians of the Galaxy) girlfriend fall to her death. His girlfriend (Janine Turner, Gosnell: America’s Biggest Serial Killer) is trying to bring him around, but her efforts are interrupted by the aforementioned shenanigans.

They're actually not as hard to see as this picture would lead you to believe.

Here Sylvester Stallone points out the many plot holes to Janine Turner.

It’s impossible to watch this movie even today without noticing what it gets wrong relative to Die Hard. For example, Stallone can act, but he mostly doesn’t here. The movie’s a little fuzzy on why he’s beating himself up so much, but the instant the action starts he stops being Broody Stallone and becomes Action Man. John Lithgow can overact and must not have sensitive teeth the way he chews the icy scenery here. Stallone’s dramatic arc with Rooker is basically pointless.

We’re not really here for high drama, though, and even Die Hard’s character arcs (particularly with Sgt. Powell) are corny, however well constructed. Cliffhanger tends to go to the dramatic cheese well a lot…which is kind of entertaining, at least, if dumb. Lithgow’s campily English-accented Qualen lacks any gravitas, and it’s really hard to imagine him planning anything with anyone, he’s so nuts.

Buckaroo Banzai reference!

Dr. Emilio Lizardo called to say “Hey, dial it back a bit.”

But Stallone’s Action Man (like Schwarzenegger’s and, come to think of it, most of the Die Hard clone heroes) can never really be hurt. He has setbacks, but they never imperil him personally—even when they do. There’s a war of attrition against John McClane and he shows it. Here Stallone gets shot, apparently in the gut—somewhere between the ribs and the stomach where I guess we just keep the meat we need so we can have non-serious flesh wounds—but after the scene where he kills the guy who shoots him (by lifting him up and impaling him on a stalactite, after the guy has beaten the tar out of him for several minutes besides shooting him) he just sort of shakes off the wound. I mean, there’s no indication of him ever having been shot there afterwards. I think even the bloodstain on his shirt that indicates he’s been shot just goes away.

He also gets trapped under the water in frozen ice. When he escapes the ice, he’s still at a high altitude on a snowy mountain and minus the clothes he had to shed from sinking, but by the next shot he’s dry and not even shivering. (They often don’t look cold in this movie.) It’s not that Die Hard doesn’t have its cheats. It’s that when the cheats keep piling up and piling up, it gets increasingly harder to care.

The movie lacks a good sense of time tension: The cavalry is on the way but that never really feels like time pressure for the bad guys or much chance of salvation for the good guys. Likewise, Qualen’s entourage is mostly just bodies for Stallone (or Qualen) to kill. I mean, after they’re all dead, John Lithgow manages to single-handedly capture Janine Turner from a helicopter by pointing a pistol at her through the windshield.

Despite all this, it’s fun. It’s probably more fun now than it was 25 years ago because you don’t have any hopes about it being another Die Hard, and a lot of what feels stupid also feels like a fun throwback to that heyday of action movies.

Really fine score by Trevor Jones, heavier on the majesty than the suspense, but top notch. I think Mr. Jones mostly scores his son’s movies these days, which is kind of nice.

We like nice.

Rooker would be teamed up with Stallone again in “Guardians of the Galaxy 2”, which is also kinda nice.

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