Stallone Saturdays: Cliffhanger (1993)

By Christian DiMartino

Anyone who has seen Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls will more than likely never forget its opening sequence, and anyone who has seen Cliffhanger will know just what I’m talking about.

As Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls opens, aerial shots of mountains. We also see Ace (Jim Carrey) climbing across a mountain on a wire. Attached to him is a raccoon. The raccoon’s chord begins to break, Ace hangs on to the raccoon for dear life, until the raccoon slips from his hand. Sad, I know. But also funny, if you catch the joke. Years later, I realized this was from Cliffhanger, and as I watched the opening seconds Cliffhanger, I mildly chuckled because of how well Ace Ventura nailed the execution of these scenes. Yet as the opening of Cliffhanger continues, my chuckles went away, because what I began to experience was something not only pretty impressive, but also frightening.

The film is directed by Renny Harlin, whose films range from good (this one, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Die Hard 2) to rather terrible (Cutthroat Island, The Covenant)Cliffhanger is one of the good ones. Heck, some might say one of the best ones, because here is a film in which you go into it expecting something rather spectacular. What you get is something that may not be spectacular in terms of story, but it is marvelous in terms of its craftsmanship and just how well and seamless the action sequences appear to be. The film was actually nominated for three Academy Awards- two sound awards, and Best Visual Effects. It lost all three of them to Jurassic Park, but in another year, it might have won them, and deservedly so. 

Stallone’s performance here is actually a pretty decent one, contrary to last week’s movie, Rhinestone. Cliffhanger is a case in which Stallone is the star, but this time he isn’t hogging all the glory. Here’s it’s shared with the action sequences and… yeah, I’ll just say it, if John Lithgow is cast as the maniacal villain, chances are you’re going to have to try real hard to keep up with him. 

Stallone’s Gabe Walker (certainly a less over-the-top name than, say, Deke DeSilva) is a rescue climber who decides to bow out of the game after he accidentally drops someone from 4,000 feet in the air. Roughly a year later, Walker is asked to return to the same mountain range to rescue a group of stranded people. As luck would have it though, these stranded people are, of course, the maniacal villains, led by Lithgow’s villainous Qualen, who perform an awesome mid-air heist. This group is in search of three boxes filled with $100,000,000, and so they force Walker into helping them. Yet seeing as this is a Stallone action thriller, you can assume that he will not go down easily. 

The movie, in short, is fun, and while it may not be anything new in terms of story, it is however a film that is distinguished by just how impressive it looks. This was 1993, mind you. Sometimes you watch a recent film and wonder just how they thought the effects were acceptable. The stunts in Cliffhanger are pretty spectacular- they’re the real star of the movie. Yet I find the film’s visual effects were mentioning too. It’s very obvious, and clear, why Jurassic Park won the Oscar. Spielberg’s film is still groundbreaking and marvelous to behold. But take into consideration the effects for Cliffhanger. Nothing looks like obvious CGI or anything, it all looks practical. In some cases, maybe the best visual effects are the ones you don’t notice. 

Cliffhanger is a good movie, with of course a great quality. The movie is breezy and entertaining, and it just works. Seeing as movie theatres are only playing older movies, they need to work on getting this re-released on the big screen ASAP, because I’m there. 

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