Sylvester Stallone returned to his roots with 1993’s Cliffhanger. No, I’m not talking about his iconic Rocky role here. I’m talking about his ancestral roots. The movie was filmed high in the Italian Alps to achieve many of these incredible vistas and the snow capped mountains. Believe it or not, this was June at the location, and several of the crew were stranded for a time because of a sudden and powerful blizzard.
However, it wasn’t really the location along with its harsh weather conditions that caused this film the most trouble. The script was plagued from the beginning with several drafts and many writers. There were so many hands in the stew that lawsuits went on for some time afterwards, leading to several writers getting a paycheck they otherwise weren’t getting. I’ve heard that as many as 12 people had a pass at the script in some form or another. Actor Christopher Walken was set to play the bad guy in the film but left the production just before shooting began. You will also notice that the film is dedicated to Wolfgang Gullich. Gullich was one of the best stunt climbers in the business. He did a lot of those climbs where you see a character without a harness or safety line. He managed to achieve all of this quite safely, only to be killed in an automobile accident in August of 1992, almost a year before the film actually opened. Finally, the film was forced to acknowledge that the harness which is seen to malfunction in the film’s opening scene was rigged to fail and that the actual harness was quite safe. All in all it was a troubled film from start to finish. It did get a lot of hype from Sony and went on to bring in a respectable $85 million at the domestic box office, but it was a much larger hit overseas pulling in almost $200 million. It’s still considered much more of a hit in Europe than it has ever been in America.
Gabe Walker (Stallone) is a rescue worker high in the Rocky Mountains. He finds himself in the unenviable position of having to rescue his partner, Hal (Rooker) who has taken his girlfriend, Sarah (Joyner) to a particularly tough climb in a place known as The Tower. He injured his leg, and the two are trapped at the narrow peak, so narrow that the chopper could not land there to get them. So they land at a neighboring peak and Gabe free climbs to bring them a lifeline which is then strung between the peaks to the waiting rescue chopper. Tragedy strikes and Gabe leaves, shouldering the guilt.
Nearly a year later, Gabe has returned to try to get back with his own girlfriend, Jessie (Turner). Meanwhile a group of thugs led by Qualen (Lithgow) has hijacked a plane transporting a huge stash of newly minted cash from the Denver Mint. The daring aerial raid goes wrong, and the plane crashes into the mountains while the money cases land in three different points in the rough terrain.
Hal and Gabe’s relationship is still strained from the accident, but they set off together on what they believe is a routine rescue of stranded hikers. It’s the gang of bad guys, and they’ve lured the climbers to them in order to force them to help retrieve the money bags. When Gabe manages to escape, he has to find a way to get to the money first and stop them, or they will kill Hal.
What we end up with here is very much Die Hard in the mountains. That isn’t too much of a surprise when you consider director Renny Harlan had just come from the second outing in that franchise. Stallone works his way from location to location, taking out a bad guy from time to time, while having to do incredibly risky climbs and stunts along the way. In the end it didn’t matter so much that we had a story that was pretty much messed up from the start. If you decide to get this movie, it won’t be because of the script. It won’t be because of the cast, even though this is a solid one. Stallone is pretty much playing it for the physicality more than the acting, but he doesn’t really disappoint in either. John Lithgow came into the role at the last minute, but he shows us a mean- spirited single-minded villain who does more than necessary to drive the film along. Michael Rooker has always been a strong character actor, and here he shows that he can handle a lead as well as Stallone. He more than holds his own here. The two together don’t share a ton of screen time, but the chemistry was good enough that I would have liked to see them do it again, either in a sequel or another vehicle altogether. Janine Turner gets to mix into the action a little here. She showed promise, but her career ended up pretty much in television. Actually, one of the best performances in the film is also one of the briefest. Michelle Joyner plays the doomed Sarah so powerfully that you really do hang on the edge of your seat when the picture opens. With all of the death defying feats we see throughout the film, I don’t think any of them ever match that one for suspense. I was fully vested and up on that ledge. Paul Winfield has a small but effective role, and one of the henchmen is played by CSI:Miami’s Detective Frank Tripp, Rex Linn.
Cliffhanger coming to high definition Blu-ray makes this film a better bet than it has ever been before. The locations here are absolutely stunning. The stunt work is as good as anything we’ve ever seen, including an aerial stunt that was, at the time, the costliest single stunt ever performed. It’s a shame that stuntman Gullich was killed after making this, his first and only film. He already had a reputation as one of the best climbers in the world. Here he showed us he had quite a future in the film industry. These are without a doubt some of the best stunts I’d ever seen. With CG there’ve been plenty of more ambitious looking stunts, but this is as daring and as adrenaline-pumping as you’re likely to see. There’s no question but that Cliffhanger, while an older film, really gets a chance to shine in high definition.
Cliffhanger is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average 35 mbps. The bit rate is excellent here. As I’ve already mentioned, this is a visually stunning film, and in spite of its age, this high definition transfer won’t … let you down. The level of detail is at times as good as some of the recent high definition documentaries of similar environments. Of course, there isn’t a whole lot of color, but when it presents itself it takes advantage of the sharpness and wonderful contrast offered here. The print is very clean, free from marks or artifacts. This will look quite nice on your huge monitor. There are grain elements that some will consider flaws. I do not.
The DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio captures the environment effectively. Unfortunately, that means the dialog is not always easy to hear. There’s a ton of wind shear effects that work well at times across the surround field. The score is a bit bland here for my tastes. I get the sense it should be stronger and more exhilarating, but it falls rather flat. I actually never saw the film before so have nothing to compare it to. There are many rather sweet ambient effects. Helicopter sounds were very realistic. The firefight in the plane gives us plenty of surround ear candy to take in.
There is an Audio Commentary with Stallone and director Renny Harlan. It’s mostly Harlan, and it’s obvious they were not recorded together. Stallone only makes a very occasional comment. A second Audio Commentary features “The Technical Crew“. If you’re into the f/x and other technical information, this one works. I found it a bit rote and dry.
All of the features are, unfortunately, in standard definition.
Deleted Scenes: (8:18) There are two, with an introduction and plenty of unoptional commentary by Harlan. He talks quite a bit about the test audiences, and both of these were cut because they were deemed too extraordinary and made Gabe look too much like a superhero.
Stallone On The Edge – The Making Of Cliffhanger: (20:03) This has the feel of a promo piece complete with heavy narration. Stallone attempts to show off the sacrifices made to do the movie. He’s intent on proving that his life isn’t all “autographs and sunglasses”. During his interview pieces Sly is dressed in his costume for Demolition Man.
Special Effects: (7:24) A look at Sarah’s fall and the copter explosion. The piece breaks down all of the components and the composite process.
Storyboard Comparisons: (12:01)
This film is very much a visual experience. The plot we’ve seen before. The only thing that makes this film stand out is the visual pop. Blu-ray certainly gives new life to that kind of film, as we can see very clearly here. That also means it doesn’t hold up well over repeated viewings. It’s a must see, to be sure, but a rental would do just fine for that purpose. Stallone has a knack for bringing the tough guy down to Earth. This film is no exception, albeit without quite the life we find in Rocky. It’s a skill like anything else. “There’s only 12 guys in the world who could do it.”