Co-written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, Cliffhanger is an action blockbuster from 1993 about a group of criminals whose plane, containing briefcases filled with stolen money, crash lands in the mountains. They attempt to recover the dough but a group of resilient mountain climbers stand in their way.
The film opens with a dramatic incident in which climbers Gabe (Stallone) and Hal (Michael Rooker) fail to save Hal's girlfriend who, following a harness malfunction, falls to her death. Cut to some time later and Hal still blames Gabe for what happened, as does he, so their friendship is in tatters, to say the least. When a U.S. Treasury plane, which was the subject of a heist by unhinged criminal Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) and his team, including a U.S. Treasury agent-turned-thief, crash-lands in the Rocky Mountains it becomes up to Gabe and his girlfriend Jessie (Janine Turner) to stop them from escaping with the money and killing their friends. Cliffhanger was a significant hit at the box-office and it even earned itself a few Academy Award nominations, though beating Jurassic Park at anything that year was always going to be a challenge. Between Cliffhanger and Demolition Man, 1993 was a career-refreshing year for Sylvester Stallone.
There's a lot about Cliffhanger that works brilliantly, for a mindless action movie that is. One thing is the mountain setting which provides countless options for dangers the characters could face from avalanches to falls, wild animals, icy lakes, the cold, the list goes on. The film's core concept is a clever one in that it puts protagonists with no experience when it comes to dealing with dangerous, armed criminals and shows that, in fact, what they deal with from day to day has prepared them quite well for the events depicted in the film and so they aren't to be underestimated. The action itself is ludicrous throughout, especially the zip-lining between planes sequence, but it is well done and the stunts, as well as the effects, are impressive. The villains are also pretty out there between John Lithgow who inexplicably attempts some kind of English accent as Qualen and his less clever, but equally cruel minions. They're cartoonish bad guys, the kind you'd see in a Die Hard movie, but they are an enjoyable bunch to see get taken out by the heroes.
The heroes in question are likeable enough despite their minimal personality, especially Michael Rooker's character who has to deal with the villains directly the entire time and goes through the more noticeable arc. Even though you do root for them, Sylvester Stallone and Janine Turner are pretty bland in this movie so it's a blessing that the villains are as ridiculously mean as they are. While it's great that the film's plot is easy to follow, it does feel a little underwritten in places, specifically when it comes to the characters. John Lithgow's villain is fun but he could have been iconic with a few more snappy one-liners and more scenes of him doing something psychotic, like killing someone in a sadistic way. We also spend a long time showing what the mountain climbers go through emotionally after the death of Hal's girlfriend but the film doesn't seem to resolve this much by the end. Some of the supporting characters (the young snowboarders and Ralph Waite's pilot) also feel somewhat short-changed.
With a film like Cliffhanger, you're really just looking for it to be entertaining and deliver the good guys vs bad guys schtick with gusto and Cliffhanger does just that. This is a fun popcorn movie and it's still perfect for a Friday night with friends, even if it sometimes does fall a little short of the action movie it could have been.