Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) is a rock jock; a Rocky Mountain rescue climber and one of the best there is… or was. After losing a climber eight months earlier, Gabe has returned only to convince his girlfriend Jessie (Janine Turner) to pack up and leave with him. While there, the rescue center receives a distress call and, given the bad weather, Gabe goes out one last time to assist his friend and fellow ranger, Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker). Instead of finding stranded climbers, Hal and Gabe are taken hostage by a crew of thieves led by Eric Qualen (John Lithgow). Their midair hijacking of a Treasury transport plane goes awry, causing them to crash their jet and lose the three cases filled with one-hundred million dollars in $1,000 bills. Qualen and his crew force their new found help to locate the money by using their knowledge of the mountain and following the cases’ tracking beacons. Gabe narrowly escapes and braves the elements to get one step ahead of the thieves in the hopes of rescuing Hal.
Cliffhanger has the distinction, like several other films, to have been nominated for both Oscars and Razzies. The technical aspects, sound, sound editing, and visual effects, were the Oscars focus while the Razzies chose to condemn the screenplay, the acting of Janine Turner and John Lithgow, and the film as a whole. Surprisingly, the Razzies spared Stallone their usual bad acting ire.
Turner’s performance does leave something to be desired, but Stallone and Rooker work well together. Seeing Cliffhanger now after so many years and so many episodes of The Walking Dead, I can’t help but marvel at how young and somewhat handsome Michael Rooker is! Though many criticize Lithgow’s English accent, he’s the kind of insane, over-the-top villain you got to have in a flick like this. He fearlessly gets in the faces of Rooker and Stallone, barks some wild lines with wild-eyed enthusiasm, and revels in the killing of by-standers and his troops alike. His crew comes off too high strung and tense for the situation at hand. Sure, they are on borrowed time before the Treasury Department comes searching for the wreakage, but how fast can things happen during a winter storm on the side of a mountain?
Qualen’s crew assumes fast and they don’t like it when it doesn’t. Kynette (Leon) is always instigating arguments with Travers (Rex Linn) and getting in Gabe’s face while others decide it’s fun to shoot the shit out of everything, avalanches be damned. Their ruthlessness and barbarous ways make them formidable opponents for Gabe, Unfortunately, all that machismo includes some absolutely terrible, befuddling dialogue.
Fortunately, the foolhardy villains and inane writing take a backseat to a spectacular series of stunts and visuals. Cliffhanger features a dazzling aerial stunt where stuntman Simon Crane shimmies down a cable from one plane to another. Director Renny Harlin impresses the eye with dangerous climbing sequences, base jumping, and lots of explosions. The explosions are even cooler if you don’t question why aerial thieves would need to be carrying c4.
Cliffhanger never won any of those Oscars or Razzies. It did, however, bring in a whopping $255 million worldwide and for good reason. Cliffhanger remains an entertaining action spectacle, assuming the awkwardness of its performances and story don’t send you over the edge.