Cliffhanger (1993)

I didn’t really watch Cliffhanger. It played, and I spent two hours looking at the screen it was playing on, but I felt so disconnected from what was happening that I never felt as if I was involved, either emotionally or intellectually — I felt nothing. It’s a shame, as there were a couple of good moments, but on the whole, this is a film that felt devoid of life and personality. I was never given reason to care about it.

I suppose the most apt description one can give for Cliffhanger is “Die Hard on a mountain range,” but that doesn’t seem fair to me. Sure, there’s a seemingly ordinary man and he’s pushed to his limits because of some bad guys, but Die Hard had a certain charm that’s missing from this film. Maybe it’s because we grow to like John McClane, while the main character here is just some muscle-dude who’s really good at rock climbing. McClane had emotions, while this guy shows less emotions than the mountains he climbs on. At least they can cause rock slides when they get mad.

Our opening scene is our best, which perhaps sets expectations too high. We see a group of people climbing rocks, engaging in small talk, and they seem to be likable enough. They’re about to be rescued from the top of the rocks that they just climbed (I guess you don’t have to climb back down when one of your group members is the boyfriend of a rescue ranger). While the woman of the group is climbing across the rope to the helicopter, something goes wrong, and she’s left holding on for her life. Gabe (Sylvester Stallone) tries to save her, but he’s too late. She falls to her death, leaving her boyfriend, Hal (Michael Rooker) helpless.

Months pass after this. Hal and Gabe no longer talk to one another (Hal blames Gabe because he tries to save the woman, for some reason), and Gabe is no longer involved with the rescue ranger, Jessie (Janine Turner). This is going to have to change. See, through events that I’m too tired to explain, millions of dollars have managed to find their way onto the mountain range, and through even more events, the bad guy, Qualen (John Lithgow), is going to force Gabe and Hal to find the money for him, given the fact that they both know how to rock climb.

Soon enough, Gabe is shot at, escapes, and he allows Hal to do most of the work. He reunites with Jessie, and the pair spends a great deal of time tracking Qualen, Hal, and the rest of the baddies. There’s a distinct lack of action scenes at this point, which surprised me. Characters have a lot of downtime once the plot has been set-up, although once the action picks back up, it stays at that level until the end.

I suppose the Die Hard comparisons come because our protagonist is supposed to be like your Average Joe, and also because he rarely gets the chance to meet the villains. That role falls to the secondary cast. But he still manages to make an impact, be a nuisance, and generally cause havoc. Oh, and the bad guys also want a large sum of money, and have come up with an ingenious plan to escape with their prize. (And let’s not forget that director Renny Harlin was also behind Die Hard 2 three years earlier.)

The overarching plot is so basic. We know it’s there just to give characters a reason to be involved in action scenes. We forget these in the good action films because these scenes themselves are exciting enough to make us forget out weak the plot is. That downtime I mentioned earlier took me out of the film, and it never gained my attention and enthusiasm back. There’s nothing particularly special here, and without a real plot or characters, I just couldn’t bring myself to care.

The major problem is with the characters. The opening scene showed me they can be endearing. The rest of the film showed me that this was a fluke on the part of the filmmakers, and that they are actually empty vessels without any real personality. They’re all bland, and any tension has to be artificially created. For instance, the strained relationship between Gabe and the other two major characters gets brought up once or twice but never makes an impact on anyone, and doesn’t even really get resolved. They’re mad at each other early on, but in the next scene, they’ll attempt to save the other’s life. It just doesn’t make sense. I mean, I can appreciate the attempt made here, but it simply didn’t work.

The acting was also pretty bland, but I don’t suppose anyone went into this film expecting deep performances. But since the action was bland, I found myself looking to other areas to impress me. I couldn’t find any. Some action films have good actors to carry them during downtimes. This one doesn’t. The only thing that can be said about the actors is that Stallone is able to do a fine job in the action scenes, and Lithgow made me laugh some of the time he was on-screen.

Cliffhanger is your generic action film that has nothing special to offer us. The action scenes are standard affair, the plot is there just as a backdrop for the action scenes, and the actors aren’t any good, but how could they considering their characters are less interesting than a rock. I couldn’t get involved in the film, even though it got off to a decent start. Cliffhanger might work better as a film to play in the background while doing something more interesting.

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