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By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 28, 1993


Renny Harlin
Sylvester Stallone;
John Lithgow;
Michael Rooker;
Janine Turner
profanity and extreme violencease of arrested overdevelopment, but the role rightly belongs to Bruce Willis In the end, it's just "Die H

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Sylvester Stallone's career seems to have plateaued with "Cliffhanger," a predictably thick-headed, occasionally plodding bacchanalia of blood, grunts and testosterone. Yet another validation of Stallone's manhood, it de- tails the tediously Herculean feats of a tough but vulnerable rock climber in a battle against himself, nature ("gravity's a bitch") and a pack of internationally renowned psychos led by John Lithgow.

Set against the scenic uplands of Colorado (actually the Italian Alps), it's a "Rocky" Mountain High for none but the star, who seems to think it's Mount Olympus he's scaled. His brooding and flexing are given the epic treatment by the apparently awestruck Renny "Die Harder" Harlin, whose direction goes beyond action-packing to relentless.

The film opens with a spectacular shot of the Alps (Harlin thought them prettier than the Rockies), with the camera gradually closing on a lone climber dangling from a precipice. Gabriel Walker (Stallone), a cocky rock jock, is attempting to rescue his injured partner, Hal (Michael Rooker), and Hal's girlfriend. Alas, she falls to her death when she slips from Gabriel's desperate grasp.

Eight months later: Gabe, who has quit his job with the Rocky Mountain Rescue Team, returns to Colorado to resume his courtship of a feisty helicopter pilot, Jessie (Janine Turner). Jessie chides him for running away from his fears and urges him to return to the heights. "It doesn't get any better than this," she says, citing the great philosopher Old Milwaukee. Still not convinced, Gabe is about to leave when he and his estranged buddy, Hal, are obliged to go after a party of stranded hikers.

After some wrangling, they brave the snow and high winds to reach the imperiled hikers -- actually a vicious gaggle of gangsters who crash-landed during a spectacularly precarious midair hijacking. In the process, they've lost their loot -- $100 million taken from a Treasury Department jet -- and intend to get it back with Gabe and Hal's help. They hold the two mountaineers at gunpoint, but Gabe manages to escape.

Stripped of his equipment and his swaddling climbing garb -- the better to see his ripples and bulges -- Gabe manages to find Jessie and a sweater. Then the pair set off in search of the dastardly Eric Qualen (the chop-licking Lithgow) and his rainbow coalition of cartoon bad guys. Gabriel, now turned avenging angel, is ready to climb every mountain, and if necessary even yodel his manly expletives to save Hal and wreak vengeance on Qualen. Tenacious as edelweiss, his gal Jessie clambers a few toeholds behind.

At every turn, there's a new challenge, but Gabriel always outsmarts the allegedly clever Qualen, a former British intelligence agent. Armed to the teeth and possessed of a hair-trigger temper, Qualen kills anything that moves, including most of his cohorts and a teenage camper who just gets in the way. Though he's ruthless even by Rambonic standards, Qualen isn't an especially worthy opponent for Alpine Boy. He represents no greater evil, no enemy of the American way -- the Japanese, the Arabs, the South Africans, the Vietnamese. He's just a black hat -- one size kills all. (If Lithgow isn't careful, he'll be reduced to hosting turkey shoots.)

Stallone is coming home to the action genre after belly-flopping in the comedies "Oscar" and "Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot," but he's still got the same problem. He hasn't got a sense of humor about himself; even Schwarzenegger has that much. He's slightly more articulate than usual, but the lines still fall from his lips like beaten boxers to the mat. Not that it much matters, given the constant mayhem.

"Cliffhanger," which Stallone rewrote from Michael France's screenplay, is easily as mean-spirited as "Cobra." It may be a better showcase for America's premier cr." Cliffhanger, at area theaters, is rated R for profanity and extreme violence.ase of arrested overdevelopment, but the role

rightly belongs to Bruce Willis. In the end, it's just "Die H

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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