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‘Cliffhanger’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 28, 1993

 


Director:
Renny Harlin
Cast:
Sylvester Stallone;
John Lithgow;
Michael Rooker;
Janine Turner
R
Under 17 restricted


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During the Hollywood summer season, a mind is a terrible thing to have. "Cliffhanger," which kicks off this year's blockbuster sweepstakes with a nasty, cynical vengeance, is a sober reminder to close down all mental activity. Just pull the plug on your judgment, good sense and values. Remember to leave enough motor skills to face forward -- that's where the screen is.

It's no surprise that this Sylvester Stallone vehicle was directed by Renny Harlin, the one responsible for the calamitous plane-crash scene -- and other violent excesses -- in "Die Hard 2: Die Harder."

In this further escalation of cruelty, he provides the appropriate cliffhanging thrills -- when the movie's at its best. But he concentrates most of his time on sheer brutalization. "Cliffhanger" is the modern equivalent of throwing Christians to the lions. It's an eroticism of nastiness -- triple-X fare for dirty old men in raincoats. If you resist this sleazy gorefest, you'll be right to feel proud of yourself.

In a "Vertigo"-like beginning, the psyche (I use the term loosely) of Rocky Mountain Rescue climber Stallone is shattered by a catastrophic mishap. When he tries to save a dangling, panicked climber -- the girlfriend of his pal Michael Rooker -- he's tragically unsuccessful.

In the movie's closest attempt at an internal moment, he blames himself. Rooker blames him too. Stallone then quits the team and vanishes for eight months, leaving helicopter pilot and girlfriend Janine Turner unaware of his whereabouts. Action movie heroes do that.

The only thing that's going to get the Slyster over the guilt is another dangerous mountain rescue, involving overwhelming physical punishment, sheer-face climbing (in a wet T-shirt), avalanche evasion, explosives evasion and a therapeutic round of bloody deaths.

He gets his chance when psychotic villain John Lithgow and his bionic, affirmative-action hench-persons (including black kung fu specialist Leon and English female pilot Caroline Goodall) commandeer a U.S. Treasury Department plane carrying $100 million.

Lithgow's hijacking plot goes awry when the plane crashes in the mountains and scatters the money (in three suitcases) all over the Rockies. Needing mountain guides to retrieve the cash, Lithgow radios for rescue help.

When Stallone and Rooker (still on bad terms with each other) answer the call, they find themselves pressed into Sherpa service at gunpoint. Meanwhile, Turner and fellow pilot Ralph Waite remain at the rescue base, unaware of the criminal activity going on.

Compelled to one-up the avalanche of trashy action pictures before it, "Cliffhanger" makes us acutely aware of how mega-mean these villains are. In the film's two meanest scenes, the uni-named Leon kicks, punches and knifes Stallone in every conceivable part of the body, only to get his grisly "just" reward. Then, another Lithgow sidekick (Craig Fairbrass -- the racist policeman in the brilliant PBS drama "Prime Suspect") literally plays soccer with Rooker's body, only to get his comeuppance.

In these and many other scenes, the human body gets it in every conceivable way. Phlegm and blood fly from kicked mouths in slow motion, bodies are skewered by stalactites, bullets and jagged knives turn human guts into Hamburger Helper and Lithgow turns on even those closest to him. Love, he tells one unfortunate partner before blowing a hole through her middle, is all about sacrifice.

"Swiss Family Robinson" this ain't.

By the way, here's Renny Harlin on why he decided to make this picture: "After 'Die Hard 2,' I was looking for another movie that could give me the same kind of thrills yet give me more in terms of character and relationships."

He must be referring to the way supposedly experienced rescue climber Turner squeals like a bimbo in distress when she sees a cave full of bats or constantly gives away her position to the criminals by hollering out to Stallone. Don't look for screenings of "Cliffhanger" at future feminist film festivals.

Maybe Harlin (who also made "Nightmare on Elm Street IV") was referring to the soul-searching grunts and gasps by Stallone as he lugs his body over precarious mountain ledges; or the classic enmity between Stallone and Rooker (not since Iago and Othello . . .). Or possibly Harlin's most proud of Lithgow's unforgettably fleshed out personality. "You want to kill me, don't you?" he tells Rooker. "Take a number and get in line."

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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