"Well I don't recognize the face, but the butt does look vaguely familiar." ~ Jessie Deighan
"Hey, be careful, or you'll embarrass old Frank." ~ Gabe Walker
"It'll take a heap more than that, rock jock." ~ Frank
“Kill a few people and they call you a murderer. Kill a million, and you’re a conqueror.” ~ Eric Qualen
“This rope looks 60 years old. Will it hold?” ~ Jessie
“Don’t think so.” ~ Gabe
“Bad answer.” ~ Jessie
“Delmar, from me to you, you’re an asshole.” ~ Hal Tucker
“Yeah? And you’re a loud mouth punk slag, who’s about to die.” ~ Delmar
“Maybe. But in a minute, I’ll be dead, and you will always be an asshole.” ~ Hal
“Your friend just had the costliest funeral ever.” ~ Qualen
"I was there, remember? You were the only one who didn't panic. So why don't you do us all a favour and quite hoarding all the guilt. You held on as long as you could." ~ Jessie
"What the hell do you know about bad times, man? You didn't love her, and you didn't have to explain to her family!" ~ Hal
"And you didn't have to look into her eyes when she was falling! So drop it!" ~ Gabe
Cliffhanger is an action thriller from 1993, by director Renny Harlin and starring Sylvester Stallone. The adventure film, telling a cat and mouse story mixed with wilderness survival, touches on all the right beats for a summer blockbuster, and brings its own sense of humour to the equation while also employing good characterization. And it features one of the best villains I’ve seen in an action film, played by an actor who was clearly having a ball playing someone so malevolent.
The film starts out among the mountains, where a search and rescue ranger, Gabriel Walker (Stallone) is making an ascent to two stranded climbers. One is his friend and co-worker Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker), who’s injured his leg. The other is Hal’s girlfriend Sarah (Michelle Joyner), who’s not terribly comfortable on the mountain, admitting that Hal talked her into it because he said it was better than sex. Gabe sets up a line to the waiting helicopter across the chasm, where his pilot girlfriend Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner) and fellow ranger Frank (Ralph Waite) are waiting to take the climbers aboard. What starts out as a routine day goes terribly wrong, leaving Sarah dead, Hal blaming Gabe, and Gabe blaming himself.
Eight months later, a senior Treasury agent (Paul Winfield) is seeing off a flight of agents taking three cases filled with 100 million dollars in uncirculated thousand dollar bills for transport. Air travel is seen as safer, but there are turncoats among the agents, and a mid-air heist involving another plane gets underway, and the heist goes wrong. The three cases are lost over the mountains, and the other plane crashes, with most of the gang of thieves surviving. Their leader, Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) is less than impressed with the surviving federal turncoat Travers (Rex Linn), and anxious to recover the money.
Meanwhile, Gabe returns to the mountains after time away; he finds Jessie back at their place, but he’s not back to stay. Overwhelmed by grief and guilt, he asks her to leave with him. She refuses when she’s called into work, and it's not long before the lives of the search and rescue mountaineers intersect with the ruthless gang of crooks determined to reach their money.
Stallone co-wrote the screenplay with Michael France, and Harlin was brought on board after his experience directing Die Hard 2. While the film is heavy on action, the story does allow for characterization- the overwhelming guilt for Gabe is with the character throughout much of the film, while Hal's grief is mixed with rage. By contrast among the villains, Travers is a man seemingly permanently driven by his temper, while Qualen comes across as of a calmer disposition- albeit snarky and absolutely ruthless, but a man in control- at least most of the time. The screenplay also weaves in enough humour, most of it from Qualen, who aside from being malevolent has more of his share of dry, slightly sadistic humour. There's even some of that for Gabe, particularly in a bad pun moment in remarking on the cost of heat.
Harlin has a great touch for action, and it shows in this film. Most of the location shooting was done in the Italian Dolomites, filling in for the American Rockies. Some of the filming required stunt people- no insurance company would have signed off on certain moments involving actors, and Harlin's skills particularly show themselves in the mid-air heist, in the failed rescue early on, or in harrowing duels while sliding off a glacier or on the side of a cliff. He conveys just as much danger and tension, though, in a face off that's more quiet, with one adversary on top of the ice, while the other is trapped in the water below. The resulting film is one that will give serious problems to someone with a fear of heights. Harlin also brought in Trevor Jones to compose the score; Jones was previously best known for his work alongside Randy Edelman composing the score for Last Of The Mohicans, and is an under-appreciated composer. Jones weaves together heroic melodies with tense themes that mesh well with the movie.
The cast are well chosen, from the various Eurotrash gang of thieves, all of whom are nasty customers, reminding one of rabid dogs chafing at the leash. Caroline Goodall is an exception as Kristel, the calm and icy pilot who seems to have a thing with Qualen- while she's assembling a bomb, for instance, he tells her she'll make someone a good wife one day, while she quips that he should see her bake a cake. She's professional for the most part, but has one blind spot she doesn't quite see coming.
Rex Linn has spent most of his career playing either lawmen or ill tempered villains, and for some odd reason got saddled with years on end of putting up with the mumbling and socially inept David Caruso on CSI Miami. He spends a good part of this movie hollering at people as the traitorous Travers, being perpetually angry, and one gets the sense the character is overcompensating for his own failures as a man by yelling so much. The character isn't particularly respected by any of the other members of the gang, and it shows. Linn certainly does play to that, though, which makes the performance effective.
Ralph Waite is best known as the kindly patriarch of The Waltons, and this character's pretty much a similar sort of fellow. Frank is the senior man at the rescue service, still capable and calm under pressure, a bit eccentric, but generally the kind grandfatherly sort of man you'd expect.
John Lithgow gets to have a lot of fun as Qualen. The villain is not one of shades of grey; there are no moral dilemmas for him; he's malevolent, ruthless, and out for himself. He doesn't mind sacrificing others to get what he wants, and is not a character who would ever consider being merciful. That said, he's also quite calm under pressure- he takes things in stride, doesn't overreact when things go amiss- at least not until late in the game, and he comes across as a capable leader. He might be a thoroughly nasty and dangerous character, but it's fun watching him chew the scenery, and Lithgow makes the most of it.
Michael Rooker went on to other things after this film, and I like his performance here. Events early on are shattering for him, losing the woman he loves, and we can understand his anger, directed at Gabe, even if he doesn't see that some of it ought to be directed at himself. As angry as he might be though, as the story develops, the friendship is still there beneath the resentment- Hal urges Gabe to make a break for it if he can. Throughout the story as it unfolds, Hal's a defiant character even at gunpoint, resourceful even under pressure, and Rooker really plays to that.
Janine Turner was well cast as Jessie. She carries the character as you'd expect a pilot to be- professional and calm. And she also gives the character depth, wisdom, independence, and inner strength. I like her remark early on to Gabe- she doesn't know if she should hate him or love him, but she understands him, and that certainly comes across throughout Turner's performance. Jessie and Gabe come across as a believable couple, even though they're at a difficult point through a good part of the film.
Sylvester Stallone will never be accused of being an actor of great range, but that doesn't matter. Here he gets the job done in just the right way, by playing the character as haunted and tormented by guilt. Gabe as we first meet him might be a cheerful guy who sees nothing wrong in teasing his friend, though in the wake of things going wrong, he becomes a broken man. Stallone plays to that as the character's return plays out, and an extreme situation is required to shake him out of his despair. As the story unfolds, we see the resourcefulness of the character, the man who knows the mountains, and while he's poorly armed compared to his adversaries, he certainly knows how to use the tools at hand, and that comes across in how Stallone plays him. This is actually my favourite Stallone role, with his fish out of water sci-fi leading role in Demolition Man a close second.
Cliffhanger still goes for the thrills each time I see it, playing out a story of clearly very bad people contending with the good guys- good but human. The director handles the momentum of action and the tension of adrenaline very well indeed, but has the sense to allow quiet moments too, just so the audience can catch their breath, appreciate an acidic remark from the villain... and brace themselves to go back over the edge again.