Cliffhanger (1993): Stallone Actioner

Now that the Rambo and Rocky film series have exhausted their story potential–and audiences–Sylvester Stallone is trying really hard to change his image and revitalize his career.

He tried to project a more intellectual image by wearing glasses, and he even attempted comedy (“Oscar,” “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot”). The results were disastrous–artistically and, more importantly, commercially.

It’s therefore a relief to report that with his new action flick, Cliffhanger, Stallone is back where he belongs, in the wilderness, fighting stiff cliffs, cold weather, menacing helicopters, and greedy villains all by himself. Though written off by the media and currently ridiculed in Hot Shots: Part Deux, Stallone proves that he has staying power, provided he restricts his work to the action genre.

In the new movie, made by Finnish-born director Renny Harlin (“Die Hard 2”), Stallone plays Gabe Walker, a climber who accidentally causes the death of his friend’s girl when his attempt to rescue her fails. Walker is now a humorless, guilt-ridden man in desperate need for Redemption.

The opportunity comes when his mountains rescue team is asked to retrieve loot stolen midair from a Treasury Department jet. Three suitcases full of cash fall from a helicopter into the snowy Rocky Mountains. When the reluctant Walker tells his girlfriend (Janine Turner), “I haven’t climbed in month, you just lose the feel,” she retorts back with an assault on his masculinity, “You lost your nerve! You’re going to be stuck on that ledge for the rest of your life!” Offended and challenged, he joins in.

It’s been a long time since an American movie featured such nasty thugs. John Lithgow plays super-villain Eric Qualen in the tradition of the Nazi soldiers and Communists spies in Hollywood’s war pictures. At one point, one of the heavies says, “He’s badly wounded, what shall we do with him?” But before anyone has a chance to answer, Qualen dumps the body, an act consistent with his philosophy that “useless items are discarded.”

The film unfolds as a series of climaxes, or actions sequences–some of them thrilling. But there is a lot of dead space between them. So you find yourself bored, sitting and waiting for the next big action sequence to please your eyes.

I saw Cliffhanger at the Cannes Film Festival, where audiences cheered it–it’s the kind of film the French industry doesn’t do well. After the screening, a colleague of mine whose taste I respect told me that he praised the movie to his readers, but recommended that they put cotton balls in their ears so that they won’t be exposed to the preposterously silly dialogue.

Movies consist of both images and words. Good movies should provide visceral as well as emotional and intellectual pleasures.” I have no problem with movies stressing their uniquely visual elements, but can we afford to discard so easily ideas and feelings for the sake of gut-level frills.

On a primitive level, Cliffhanger delivers the requisite thrills of the genre. Don’t get me wrong: I was at the edge of my seat in the first five minutes, observing with terror Stallone way up in the air or swinging back and forth against a sharp cliff. But significantly, the real horror of the opening–and best–sequence consists not of the special effect, but of the audiences’ identification with an anguished and helpless woman who knows she is going to die.