Saturday, December 3, 2011


by Christopher D'Anna

      Snow-covered mountains. Clear blue skies. Automatic fire. Heroic climbers. Sadistic villains. A mid-air heist. A human bobsled. Swinging. Running. Jumping. Climbing. Falling.... Hang on!
     “Cliffhanger” is a shameless entry into the “Die Hard on a blank” Hollywood oeuvre, but is so spectacular and enjoyable that it earns a seat on action movie Mt Olympus next to the original “Die Hard” and not beneath it. (“Speed” has a throne too.) Sylvester Stallone plays Gabe, a rescue climber with a tragic past who happens to be in the wrong place at the... (say it with me) wrong time. An accented John Lithgow leads a group of brutes who have crash landed in the Colorado Rockies and are searching for million dollar briefcases scattered across the terrain. The gang coerces Gabe and his friends into helping them locate the money. Gabe and company have no history of violence and must outwit, outrun and out-climb the terrorists if they want to make it out alive. Sporting unmatched action sequences, the film’s breathtaking scale and Stallone’s star power all make for a great movie ride especially on a big screen.
     Most modern action is derivative of “Bullitt” or “The French Connection”; being gritty urban detective stories. And today you have the ridiculously shaky Bourne franchise, which everyone else, including Bond, is emulating. “Cliffhanger” features no car chases, and the protagonist never uses a gun... in the traditional sense. Sure, the movie is wrought with cliches. However, the actual stunts and sequences are exclusive to this story and this setting. The heist is wild, involving a zip line transfer of money and men between two planes midair; and it’s real. There is another scene where Gabe, first engaged in hand-to-hand combat with one of the baddies, ends up sliding down the slope of a snowy cliff. In the name of self preservation, Gabe slams the head of the creep into the snow and rides him like a bobsled. A pickaxe comes into play a couple of times, and a handy-dandy bolt gun gets Gabe out of a few binds. The most salient moments of uniqueness include actual climbing or repelling. Sure, those moments are shot in ways to hide the faces of the stuntmen, but acknowledging that it isn’t Stallone doesn’t take away from the audacity of the men actually performing those daring feats.
     The movie’s stunning backdrop and soaring music queues create a near-epic sense of scale reminiscent of the German mountains films of the 1930s. It’s an appropriate setting for a film starring a legendary muscleman. Those old German films featured daring feats of strength and will, the subtext being: behold the superiority of the Germanic race versus nature. There must have been some conscious effort here on the part of Stallone and the filmmakers to emulate the metaphor while avoiding the philosophy. It works. The central conflict is man versus man much more than man versus the environment (even though nature is both beautiful and a bitch). The film is truly sweeping and really odd among the action genre. “Cliffhanger” gives audiences an immersive experience which can be attributed to both the amazing location shooting, and Trevor Jones’ score. Jones goes big and orchestral with the music which create a senses of timelessness and grandeur. It’s really quite elegant at times... and seamless at others. It is a perfect score.
     Stallone was a great leading man. The Rocky series, particularly the first, is his ultimate contribution to American cinema. Unfortunately, each entry lost heart as they went on. The Rambo movies fulfilled a mindless action film obligation every Hollywood muscleman has to fill. And yet again, each was worse than the last. In the early 90s, Stallone was getting old and had to reinvent himself. He tried doing comedy and it didn’t resonate with audiences the way Arnold’s movies did. “Cliffhanger” was his big comeback. Stallone’s screen persona works best when he plays the underdog. Here is no exception. Once again, the odds are against him and that’s the majesty of Stallone. When John Lithgow orders “Take his jacket for insurance,” as an audience member you think he’ll freeze out there! Another henchman screams “FETCH” into Stallone’s ears, you think hey man, he doesn’t deserve that. Stallone has these beautiful, sad eyes that create so much empathy with audiences that you can forget, for just a moment, what kind of movie you’re watching. Schwarzenegger always wins. Stallone always wins too... although, he can make you think that maybe he won’t.
     The movie is chock full of gasps, funny quips and moments worth cheering. I’m surprised I haven’t seen “Cliffhanger” on a revival theater bill because it plays really well on a big screen and with a crowd. It does pop up on basic cable from time to time but check it out uncut if you can. It has a nice hard R-rating. And if you think this film is just Hollywood action nonsense, think of a movie formula as being the framework to a roller coaster. Just because you can see it and know what’s coming, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the ride.  

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