Stallone’s stock soars in Renny Harlin’s testosterone-pumped dance with verticality
Arriving as it did, at the tail end of the bodybuilder as He-Man golden era of 80s action cinema and following a series of Stallone fronted mediocrities in the shape of franchise mainstay Rocky V, and comedy sedatives Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Cliffhanger was the lifeline Sly had been waiting for.
After a series of Stallone shaped non-starters at Carolco, including a John Hughes buddy comedy with John Candy that didn’t get off the ground, a science fiction horror movie named Isobar that stuttered to a halt and a Renny Harlin helmed actioner titled Gale Force, which faltered due to budgetary concerns, attention turned to the production of Cliffhanger.
Cliffhanger was reputedly born out the true story of a downed aircraft in the Yosemite Park in the late 70s and attempts to reclaim the plane’s illicit cargo by climbers chancing their luck. Jeff Long, a climber and writer, claimed the script was based on his book Angels of Light, though co-producer Gene Hines disputed this, claiming he came up with the idea with former climber John Long after seeing a film about climbing in 1985.
Whatever the film’s true origins it eventually landed with Carolco. Ironically, Carolco would spend more money on Cliffhanger ($65,000,000) than it originally allocated for Gale Force ($40,000,000), a movie set to involve bad weather and marauding pirates. Equally ironic, once Harlin finally got to film a feature with pirates for Carolco, it would top Cliffhanger’s budget by over $30,000,000. It would also sink without trace at the box office taking Carolco and everyone on board with it.
Cliffhanger, on the other hand, was a resounding success, which was all the more surprising given Stallone was out of fashion. Also, movies set on mountains, as exemplified by K2 in 1991, often resulted in limited box office. Whilst maybe a bit more highbrow than Cliffhanger, K2 was clearly indicative of the potential for audience apathy.
Travers: Tucker and Walker! We’re missing 3 bags.
Gabe Walker: What’s in them?
Travers: None of your fucking business!
Eric Qualen: Suits, socks, 100 million dollars – the usual stuff.
Thankfully, Renny Harlin, following his first real thriller gig on Die Hard 2, would craft a survival actioner with no shortage of thrills. His insistence on filming on the Dolomites at altitudes of up to 13,000 ft and using climbing community stalwarts as members of the crew, would bolster anticipation. It would also provide a sheen of authenticity to proceedings, which the film was going to need if it was to win over the cynics. Ultimately, the film would be dedicated to one of its collaborators, Stallone’s periodic double on the film, German climbing sensation Wolfgang Gullich. Gullich would die tragically in a road traffic accident shortly after his work on the film was completed.
Stallone would receive a co-writing credit after making adjustments to Michael France’s original treatment. John Long, meanwhile, who reputedly conceived the idea with co-producer Greg Hines would receive a ‘based on a premise by’ credit once the legal dust had settled. The film would rake in $255,000,000 worldwide, thus dispelling the notion that high altitude thrillers were box office kryptonite. It would also spawn a rubbish clone in 2000’s Vertical Limit, which was high on visual thrills, but short on charisma.
Cliffhanger starts with a tragedy on the peaks when buff rock climber Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone, conquering a fear of heights by participating in some of the stunt-work), is observed dangling off a cliff, in what appears to be the tightest pair of shorts ever and a vest. Gabe is on his way to salvage his best friend’s girl, marooned on a high peak after her boyfriend hurt a knee. Her injured beau, Hal, (Michael Rooker) winches himself to safety first. Then it’s Sarah’s turn to take the plunge, quite literally as it turns out. As she attempts to rappel to safety a buckle gives out. Gabe tries to save her. However, she slips through his fingers and plummets screaming to her doom.
Gabe subsequently goes into exile for a year. However, on a visit home, he finds his services are required when a distress signal is received from more folks stranded at high altitude. Seeking redemption Gabe buckles his climbing gear on, dons his fabled climbing outfit, teams up with former mountain rescue peer Hal and sets off into the mountains in search of atonement.
Alas, unbeknownst to Gabe, the distress call was a ruse concocted by bungling skyjackers stranded on the slopes. The money they stole has been scattered across the range in a bunch of suitcases. Ultimately, this means they require a Sherpa to lead them to the loot. After taking Gabe et al hostage to do their bidding he manages to escape his captors. He duly sets about doing everything in his power to sabotage their efforts by locating the lost money and tossing it into the void, so that nobody gets to play with it.
Cliffhanger is an unapologetically testosterone-fuelled actioner that hurtles along at a bone-rattling pace, featuring a relentless stream of vertigo-inducing set pieces pinned together by a threadbare narrative, a rousing Trevor Jones score and jaw dropping, altitudinous wide lens photography courtesy of DP Alex Thomson. There’s rarely a moment when Cliffhanger applies the brakes and whilst in lesser hands such an approach might have resulted in a chaotically edited sludge of perilous action shenanigans backed by pretty scenery, in the confident hands of Harlin et al, coherency, and more crucially audience engagement, is sustained throughout.
Hal Tucker: Delmar, from me to you, you’re an asshole.
Delmar: Yeah? And you’re a loud-mouth punk slag, who’s about to die.
Hal Tucker: Maybe. But in a minute I’ll be dead, and you, will always be an asshole.
Despite being a thinly sketched, frequently violent, sweary and ultimately vapid blockbuster, Cliffhanger’s positive attributes, dizzyingly kinetic action sequences, death defying stunts and imbecilic banter straight out of the Cannon Films playbook of one-liner put-downs, far outweigh the negatives. And whilst the topography of the Italian Alps, doubling here for Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, gives a better performance than half the cast combined, John Lithgow as pantomime Brit villain Eric Quelan, a role originally earmarked for Christopher Walken, is a delight.
Ultimately, the real star of the show is the action. Amidst a tumble of preposterously orchestrated set pieces and optical effects, Gabe can be observed using a goon as a sled whilst punching him in the kisser, impaling a goon on a conveniently located stalactite, sprinting across an exploding rope-bridge, and brawling atop a crashed helicopter secured to a cliff face by a single length of cable. Then there’s the film’s piece de resistance, an aerial transfer sequence with no strings attached. This sequence, during the film’s opening third, features British stuntman Simon Crane, doubling as a villain, and executing a daring mid-air transfer at 15,000 ft minus a safety harness to mitigate risk. The stunt, which cost $1,000,000 and was reputedly paid for out of Stallone’s fee, remains the most expensive aerial stunt in movie history. It’s also one of the most effective given that even now, 28 years later, the audacity of its execution is nothing short of breathtaking.
Test audiences baulked at some of the stunts on display. This resulted in post-production headaches, a scene in which Stallone leaps a preposterous distance over a yawning gorge deemed too unbelievable to release in cinemas. The scene was re-worked to boost credibility, though why this was deemed necessary in a film that features a bad guy attempting to stop an avalanche by firing bullets at it, is anybody’s guess.
When the film was released, and despite a few heckles, the response of the climbing community was reasonably positive. Critical consensus was pretty upbeat too. Roger Ebert awarded the film three stars stating, ‘Movies like this are machines for involving us and thrilling us. “Cliffhanger” is a fairly good machine.’ It certainly proved a good machine for Stallone, whose good fortune would continue during the 90s with Demolition Man and The Specialist. Judge Dredd wouldn’t do him any favours, and neither would Daylight, or to give its full title Stallone Vs the Holland Tunnel, considered one of the most disappointing films of 1996. Stallone would bounce back, however, a year later with a performance that would go some way to disproving the action man cynics, who were convinced he was a crap actor, with a critically lauded performance in James Mangold’s quietly brilliant Copland.
A sequel was planned for Cliffhanger, titled The Dam, in 1994. However, interest in the film, which would have pitted Stallone’s Gabe Walker against a terrorist group on The Hoover Dam, sputtered out during development. Stallone toyed with the idea of resuscitating The Dam in 2008, but once again nothing came of it and the sequel was shelved. In 2019 a Cliffhanger reboot was announced only this time, a female lead would be taking on the mantle of Gabe Walker. The film is set to be helmed by rising star Ana Lily Amirpour, with Sascha Penn of Creed 2 fame on scriptwriting duties.