Cliffhanger was seen as a comeback movie for Sly after two pretty disastrous comedies in the shapes of Oscar and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot as well as the poor Rocky V. His return to the action genre was a superb success on its original release bringing in a hefty profit, re-starting his action career and launching that of director Renny ‘flushed my career down the toilet with Cutthroat Island‘ Harlin.
Reminiscent of the The Eiger Sanction, Cliffhanger feels like a film designed around the central idea of Sly now being into climbing and wanting to go on a holiday. Cobbled on top of the climbing footage is a mid-air heist film that, as usual, goes somewhat wrong. The bad guys, led by an ultra camp John Lithgow, are in pursuit of their money that’s been scattered all over the mountain range. Enter expert climber Stallone and his former partner Michael Rooker into a dangerous game of cat and mouse. The usual things happen from gunplay to chases to explosions as both parties attempt to outsmart each other.
The one aspect of Cliffhanger that remains of quality to this day is the superb mountain photography which is at its best in the opening five minutes. The sequence establishes the animosity between both male leads following an accident that claims the life of Rooker’s girlfriend. Thanks to the photography the scene has a tangible feeling of authenticity that almost carries the rest of the film on its back.
The performances are on the whole enjoyable if a little ripe and overcooked at some points. The one truly turgid turn comes for Janine Turner as the sort of love interest but not really anything character Jessie Deighan. Having bored me to tears in Northern Exposure for years she now manages exactly the same trick in Cliffhanger. Turner is so beige that it beggars belief why any casting director ever put her in anything given her lack of acting ability, charisma, sex appeal or personality.
Thankfully the Brits are represented by the hysterically mulleted Craig Fairbrass as bad guy number 4 (or something like that). His big moment comes when he talks about ‘football’ something he clearly knows absolutely nothing about. His performance is terrible but his hair is amazing and more than makes up for his lack of ability. The film though belongs to Lithgow who’s clearly having a ball as the ultimate badass, Qualen. With no first name (always a badass thing to have), he’s a very nasty man. His readiness to kill his kind-of girlfriend Kristel to escape confirms his comic book evilness with aplomb.
Harlin’s direction is wonderfully robust and works well in terms of the action being consistent and punchy. The night settings are superb making the snow and the sets look even better than they deserve. Harlin would sadly go on to commit career suicide with Cutthroat Island, a vanity project intended to make him and his then-wife Geena Davis megastars. The phenomenal amount of money lost virtually buried both their careers. The film also has the auspicious titles of the biggest box office flop of all time, actually bankrupting Carolco Pictures into the bargain.
Cliffhanger ultimately became Sly’s biggest earner of the 90s and fair enough as it’s a decent enough action flick at heart. Even today the majority of it holds up without being annoying or dull making it a highlight of his long career. The 1990s was a rough decade for Sly as his career went into box-office freefall by the end before his comeback with Rocky Balboa in 2006. Cliffhanger is about as good as it got for him in that decade and it’s still worth two hours of your time today.