One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The summer movie season is upon us again, meaning it’s time for our annual tribute to the unloved, underrated, or generally neglected summer blockbusters.
Cliffhanger was only a modest $84 million-grossing hit when it was released in late May of 1993, but it remains one of Sylvester Stallone’s finest starring vehicles—complete with arguably the best opening scene in modern action cinema. That intro finds Colorado mountain climber Gabe Walker (Stallone) ascending to a treacherous peak to help injured rescue-team comrade Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker) and his inexperienced girlfriend, Sarah (Michelle Joyner), descend safely. That seemingly innocuous mission goes tragically wrong when Sarah’s harness gives way and Walker—racing out on a line across an abyss—fails to save her, the woman slipping out of his grasp as Tucker looks on with both horror and anger. Expertly staged with mounting suspense and terror, the scene is a showstopper that sets the tone for the rest of the adrenalized proceedings as well as for Stallone’s lead performance, which strikes an ideal balance between he-man muscularity and unnerving fallibility.
Although there are moments that seem modeled after both Batman (a bat-infested cave scene) and Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (a shaky-bridge set piece), Cliffhanger is most clearly modeled after Die Hard. Co-written by Stallone, its story focuses on Walker—who, after fleeing his home in shame, has returned to mend fences with girlfriend Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner)—and his being taken hostage by an evil criminal named Eric Qualen (John Lithgow). Qualen is in search of the U.S. Treasury cash that, with the help of a crooked FBI agent, he stole and then lost in the mountains (in what still stands as the costliest aerial stunt in movie history). Given that Walker’s duel against the ruthless, British-accented Qualen and his henchmen (who have Tucker hostage) plays out via walkie-talkie, the film can’t help but inspire unflattering comparisons to the battle between Bruce Willis’ John McClane and Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber. Yet, aside from the fact that Walker magically possesses special-ops ass-kicking skills, the film’s plotting is tight, and its direction is even better. Serving as the pinnacle of director Renny Harlin’s career, Cliffhanger generates electricity from the imposing expansiveness of its snowcapped setting, its sterling on-location stunt work, and its bevy of superior imagery—from Walker running across a vertical mountain face to him leaping off an exploding bridge to a final showdown staged on top of an upside-down helicopter dangling in mid-air.
Availability: Cliffhanger is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.