' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Cliffhanger

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Some Drivel On...Cliffhanger

Renny Harlin’s action-adventure “Cliffhanger” was produced by Carolco Pictures, the infamous production company that churned out some of the 90s biggest hits before financially crashing and burning. By the time “Cliffhanger” was released in the summer of 1993, Carolco was already in the midst of the dreaded corporate restructuring and unsuccessful attempts to get other Sylvester Stallone projects off the ground meant that by the time they got to the actor’s mountaineering opus, they needed a little help, finding it in the form of TriStar, which agreed to finance half the movie’s hefty budget in exchange for distribution rights in North America and various other places. This joint venture inadvertently encapsulated “Cliffhanger” itself, the ultimate pitch meeting movie, where simply making a mountain rescue movie of dangerous stunts and spectacular scenery wasn’t going to do. Instead, “Cliffhanger” melds a skyjacking gone wrong with a mountain rescue. I mean, when you can make a movie in the Dolomites and have people literally dangling off the edge of cliffs and say the most dangerous stunt doesn’t take place in the mountains but in the air (a stunt moving between two jets at an altitude of 15,000 feet, performed by Simon Crane, just once and without safety equipment, which maybe feels like a metaphor for Carolco Pictures too), you’re not just thinking outside the box, you’re thinking in freefall, or something. 

The heist is pulled by Eric Qualen (John Lithgow), a former British Military Intelligence officer turned rapscallion, in league with a turncoat U.S. Treasury Agent, Travers (Rex Linn). But when the plane goes down high in the Rockies, they and their villainous cohorts force mountain rescue men Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) and Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker) to lead them to three scattered cases totaling $100 million in cash. Given the prologue, in which Gabe fails to rescue Hal’s girlfriend from the top of a precarious peak, watching her plunge to her death, this ordeal is intended as his catharsis, though “Cliffhanger” does not build to that cleansing moment properly and just plunks it down mid-movie rather than at the climax. At least, however, Harlin’s movie has what these sorts of movies need most, dollops of fun-loving absurdity, what I like to call the Nitroglycerin Factor. That’s culled from another mountaineering action movie, “The Vertical Limit” (2000), in which a group of rescue climbers are forced to carry nitroglycerin canisters in their packs up K2 in order to blow open a crevasse buried under an avalanche. When in doubt, goes screenwriting code, add nitroglycerin. And so, if you will excuse me, rather than continuing a proper review, let’s simply rank “Cliffhanger’s” absurd dollops on a scale of Nitroglycerin Canisters (10 being the highest, 1 being the lowest).

John Lithgow’s English Accent: I really don’t care if Lithgow’s accent is “good” or not. “Good” in this context means actorly mirth, not mastery of the speaking style. And Lithgow is clearly having a ball. 7 Nitroglycerin Canisters 

Film Score: It was composed by Trevor Jones, co-composer of a little movie called “The Last of the Mohicans”, and there are moments when this score almost turns into the “The Last of the Mohicans” score. How dare you. 1 Nitroglycerin Canister

Taking Gabe’s Coat In Freezing Weather: Granted, this makes narrative sense, Qualen holding the coat as a form of insurance, given the snowstorm, when he sees poor Gabe off to scale a rockface to find one of the money cases. But, it’s also a nifty a way to ensure Stallone can, despite the frigidity, show off those pecs. 8 Nitroglycerin Canisters

Evan and Brett: Played, respectively, by Max Perlich Trey Brownell, these two dudes seeking to get radical, like two characters who accidentally wandered onto the “Cliffhanger” set from the set of “Ski Patrol”, should have been more shrewdly, which is to say amusingly, interwoven with the main plot. Screenplays can be important, even for mindless tentpoles. 1 Nitroglycerin Canister

Talking Killer Scenes: Qualen has two primary henchmen (Leon and Craig Fairbrass), each of whom get a Talking Killer Scene, blathering too much and leaving Gabe and Hal, respectively, time to turn the tables. Leon’s Talking Killer Scene turns oddly sadistic, even misogynistic, which simply isn’t fun. In playing an ex-footballer, on the other hand, Fairbrass’s Talking Killer Scene is properly hysterical, talking Hal through the finer points of how to take a penalty kick in advance of kicking him over the side of a cliff...only to unwittingly engender his own demise, of course. It splits the difference. 5 Nitroglycerin Canisters 

Goodbye in the Rain: When Gabe’s love interest, Jessie (Janine Turner), implores him to help Hal rescue these supposed stranded climbers, Gabe begs off, which she properly diagnoses as lingering fear after letting Hal’s girlfriend die. “If you don’t do this,” Jessie says, “you’re gonna be stuck on that ledge the rest of your life.” Alas, Gabe gets in his truck and drive away. Awwww yeah, that’s the good stuff. 9 Nitroglycerin Canisters

Sylvester Stallone’s One Liners: “I never could save anything,” he says after burning some of the stolen money. “Keep your arms and the legs in the vehicle at all times!” he yells before kicking Qualen off the helicopter at the end, which doesn’t even make sense. What is this, amateur hour? Negative 3 Nitroglycerin Canisters

Rex Linn Going Bananas: Near the end, when the tide has turned, Travers sort of loses it, even saying he’s lost it, driven around the bend by Gabe slipping through their itchy trigger fingers again and again, kind of a variation on the Sonny Landham character at the end of “Predator” in so much as Travers endeavors to confront Gabe once and for all, “the matador shall dance with the blind shoemaker”, to quote the immortal Jean Girard, and all that. If the payoff does not meet the moment, Linn’s loony vibe and the movie’s sly wink at action movie characters who walk between the raindrops still puts it over the top. 7 Nitroglycerin Canisters

Ending Action Scene: Battling atop an upturned helicopter dangling precariously above a gorge, this sequence isn’t bad. It’s just, watching for the first 28 years later, it can’t help but suffer in comparison to the climactic helicopter showdown in “Mission: Impossible - Fallout.” Graded on a curve, we give it 4 Nitroglycerin Canisters.

John Lithgow’s Facial Expression During the Ending Action Scene: Though there is a moment just before he drops to his death, inside the chopper as it crashes and then explodes, when Qualen says he’s not afraid to die, Lithgow’s expression in the moment just before he meets his maker suggests otherwise. He even kind of looks around, like he’s still trying to finagle a way out of his impending doom. It’s like the inverse of Liam Neeson in “Batman Begins” gallantly closing his eyes before taking the fatal plunge into the abyss. Those kinds of actorly flourishes, that’s what I’m looking for. It’s the moment that made me imagine Conan O’Brien “Cliffhanger” Lever. If only. 10 Nitroglycerin Canisters

No comments: