[box cover]

Cliffhanger: Collector's Edition

Columbia Tristar Home Video

Starring Sylvester Stallone, Janine Turner, Michael Rooker
and John Lithgow

Directed by Renny Harlin

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Michelle Joyner is one of my favorite actresses. And I've only seen her in two movies. Plus, she's been cast in rather limited roles — she always plays the girl who dies. In Cliffhanger, she's the neophyte climber at the start whose teddy bear falls 4,000 feet, only to be followed by her own self when Sylvester Stallone's character can't get ahold of her. It's one of the most harrowing scenes in all cinema, and even the editor of the film, Frank Urioste, admits in the DVD's audio commentary that the opening scene is better than the rest of the movie (but then he realizes what he is saying and immediately backpedals). Stallone, on his commentary track, says that the girl had to do die in order to establish a human dimension for his character, a troubled, haunted man, unlike the kind he had been playing of late. And director Renny Harlin (real name: Lauri Mauritz Harjola) reveals that the girl dies in order to establish that the mountains are, indeed dangerous. By the way, Joyner's character is named Sarah.

Two years later, in 1995, she played Sherry Mauldin in Outbreak. She only appeared in a (brilliant) sequence in which director Wolfgang Petersen charts the course of a disease, from sniffles to staying home to being rounded up by the authorities, then to death, to a public burning, and then to just one image in a batch of photos slid across a Washington, D.C., conference table by J. T. Walsh. She has perfect American looks, an upturned nose and an overbite, and makes a perfect victim. Part of Harlin's genius is that he saw that in her and was able to evoke audience sympathy and terror in that opening sequence.

Incidentally, another actor who pops up in Cliffhanger is Zach Grenier, who has been in a lot of recently released DVDs. David Fincher praises Grenier highly on the Fight Club audio commentary, and Grenier also appears in Twister. I have no idea why this is so, except that he seems to be another Todd Field, the sort of actor who routinely appears in blockbusters.

But back to Cliffhanger. The plot is simple and linear. Gabe Walker (Stallone) is another Rocky: a Rocky Mountain Rescue climber, that is, who has lost his nerve. When Gabe comes back after a long absence to fetch his stuff, he is lured by his girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend?) Jessie (Janine Turner) to help out their pal Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker). Tucker is on a mission to rescue five stranded climbers. Except they aren't climbers, they are a group of hi-tech thieves led by Qualen (John Lithgow, in Shakespearean dudgeon) who are stuck in the middle of a failed hijacking of Treasury Department bills. The rest of the movie is Stallone trying to get to each of three cash-filled suitcases first, and save Hal in the process.

In Cliffhanger, the bad guy is really bad. His goons are really mean. The question then is, What exquisite forms of vengeance will Tucker and Walker (repeat those names, again and again, like a mantra) exact upon their foes? This is a movie that draws upon the most childish and atavistic element of our personality, the little boy who admires muscle men and fantasizes doing remarkable feats of strength and derring-do. I have no idea what little girls make of this sort of thing, but not much, I suppose. As primarily a boys' adventure film, with little in the way of humor, it is perfect summer evening/Saturday afternoon fodder for lads fueled by either bubble gum or beer. As a film it is well-executed and excessive.

The script, credited to Stallone and Michael France (and un-credited to Ross LaManna, John McCormick, and Michael Vickerman, all of whom also assisted) is built on doubles and triples, probably because it is easier to think along those lines when you are trying to achieve a measure of amusing and suspenseful repetition. Thus, if Walker has his dark-haired pilot girlfriend (Turner), then Qualen must have his blond pilot girlfriend Kristel (Caroline Goodall). He's just not as nice to his g.f. as Stallone is to his. There are three suitcases, three peaks, three confrontations each between most of the people here, and on and on. This is also one of those movies with Bondian speeches for the villain, such as "Walker. You resilient bastard. So you are still alive." Did Stallone really write all this? Does he really write anything? Perhaps these suspicions about the authenticity of his credits come because he is a prisoner of his heavily accented voice. However, on the audio track, Stallone proves to have a rather large vocabulary, so maybe he is a natural-born writer. (The script is also a brilliant rip-off of every Alistair MacLean novel, which isn't a bad thing. — Ed.)

One of the things that DVDs help the viewer do is really study a particular movie. After several viewings, it becomes clear, for example, that Gabe's guilt over the death of Sarah is unfounded. With our memory refreshed, we see now that Jessie actually told him to go out on the line and get the stranded girl. So an early argument between Tucker and Walker (chant those words, as if a mantra) makes no logical sense, though that doesn't mean that they, like all humans, can't argue past each other in misunderstanding. But it does suggest that Stallone's character is something of a theatrical self-pitier.

But thinking all these things is to slow the flow. Cliffhanger is the kind of film you either get on for the full ride or you have zero interest in ever seeing at all. For those who are interested, Columbia TriStar's DVD comes packed with information, which a small, complaining, conservative minority of its viewers may find disillusioning, as the commentaries reveal almost all the tricks of the film. There are two commentary tracks, one with (mostly) Harlin, with a little bit of Stallone, who was recorded at a different time. The second audio track is with editor Frank Urioste, special-effects team Neil Krepela and John Bruno, and production designer John Vallone. This is a highly informative commentary, but one must acknowledge that Urioste was either a little nervous or is not particularly articulate. (Not only that, the two special-effects guys reveal that Harlin did not want to use blue screens for the film, but the finished product is full of them and they are really obvious — despite what the special-effects crew say over the very images they claim are "invisibly" blue screens.)

Unfortunately, no one asked Michelle Joyner to do a track. It would have made for an interesting take on Hollywood. But the DVD of Cliffhanger, packed as it is with extras, survives without her. The film is one of those guilty pleasures; knowing it is absurd, you gobble it up anyway, while deeply, deeply loving both its technique and its take on the world.

— D. K. Holm

(Editor's note: Cliffhanger was previously issued on DVD by Columbia TriStar without the special features.)

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