Mountain rescuer Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) resigns after his last mission results in the death of a climber. Eight months later he is dragged back into service when a plane crashes in the Rocky Mountains. Reaching the crash site, he discovers that the plane's stranded passengers are an international team of criminals - and he is forced at gunpoint to help them located three fallen cases of money that are scattered across the mountain range.
So Cliffhanger has a Hollywood-friendly high concept, ridiculous dialogue, paper-thin characters, and story logic that simply doesn't wash, but ultimately it is just a wonderfully silly and rather fun action flick. Sometimes that is precisely what you want to sit down and watch.
The plot is simple, which can actually help this kind of action movie a lot: after a daring mid-air raid of a US Treasury aircraft, three cases filled with $100 million dollars in bearer bonds get lost over the Rocky Mountains. What's more, the thieves' own plane gets damaged, and they crash into the snow. After tempting up two mountain rescuers - reluctant draftee Gabe Walker and his resentful ex-partner Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker) - on false pretences, the thieves force them to guide the way to each of the three cases. Naturally Gabe escapes, and starts fighting a Die Hard-style battle against the thieves in a race to find the cases.
In the early 1990s it was always a Die Hard-style battle. After John McTiernan's iconic action film hit cinemas in 1988, Hollywood's studios were quick to try duplicating its success with a range of action vehicle pitting a lone 'everyperson' hero against a group of armed criminals. Under Siege gave audiences "Die Hard on a ship", Speed gave audiences "Die Hard on a bus", and Hard Rain attempted "Die Hard in a storm". "Die Hard on a mountain" honestly isn't any less believable than any of those other features. In fact it uses its mountainside setting to great effect, showcasing some beautiful scenery along the way (although of the Pyrenees in Italy, rather than the Rockies, in a production cost-cutting measure).
Sylvester Stallone plays Gabe as a level-headed, appealing hero, without a huge amount of complexity or depth. He had a hand in rewriting the film's screenplay, and was probably smart enough to realise any kind of nuance to the role was unnecessary. It's actually Michael Rooker who gets the more interesting part: Hal is a little bit angrier and more hot-headed than Gabe, and at the same time not quite as skilled or effective. I have always enjoyed Rooker's performances, and while his role is ultimately a two-dimensional one he plays it very well.
Janine Turner plays a third rescuer, and nominal love interest, Jessie Deighan. It is an essentially throwaway part, adding little to the narrative beyond getting captured by the villain at the appropriate moment. It's a shame, since I always thought Turner deserved a better shot at Hollywood fame than this.
As the villainous Eric Qualen, John Lithgow affects a strange pseudo-British accent and sneers his way from one weakly composed quip to the next. It's the sort of disastrous combination of bad dialogue and lazy acting that becomes a weird sort of entertainment all by itself. Once you get the image in your head of the villain being not Lithgow's Qualen but rather Kelsey Grammer's Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons, Lithgow's performances becomes even more unintentionally funny.
Renny Harlin directs the picture with an overabundance of slow motion, which kicks in every time a character gets shot dead by one of the villains. He does know how to shoot an action scene, but the constant slow motion does raise the question of whether or not he knows how to pace one. The film's finale is, one particularly awful heroic quip aside, pretty effective, featuring a fistfight on top of a helicopter that has become tangled in cables halfway down a mountainside. Trevor Jones' weirdly downbeat score casts a weirdly jarring effect over the whole film: it feels partially cribbed from The Last of the Mohicans, and while that style worked brilliant there it feels completely inappropriate here.
Cliffhanger is overloaded with faults: bad acting, bad writing, bad direction. It is also a breezy and weirdly addictive B-movie. When the stunts work, they work brilliantly. When an action set piece is set up well, it sings. Stallone forms a hugely reliable and entertaining core. It's absolutely a bad film, but it's the kind of bad you can find yourself watching and enjoying. Possibly despite its poorer aspects, but to be completely honest I suspect it may partly be because of them.