(Renny Harlin, USA, 1993)


Knocking Sylvester Stallone, particularly when his career is not going well, has long been a favoured bloodsport of the quality press. Between Demolition Man (1993) and Cliffhanger, however, it’s clear that Stallone, both in front of behind the cameras, is not half as thickheaded as the worst of the Rambo movies seemed to indicate.

Cliffhanger, on which Stallone collaborated as screenwriter, is as fine a piece of action cinema as I have seen in years. Of course, action films such as Trespass (1992) or Hard Target (1993) regularly draw a blank from critics: it’s all fast and furious fun, but where are the social comments, the deeply feeling characters, the finely calibrated, literary themes?

Action movies generally begin from somewhere else entirely. If they are about anything, it is the bloody struggle for territory – whether a building, a mountain or an entire country. Perhaps the ultimate territory in action cinema is the human body itself: its pleasures and pains often presented in a frankly sadomasochistic manner.

The plot of Cliffhanger is sparse – simply the contest between good guys (Stallone and Michael Rooker from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, 1990) and bad guys (led by malevolent John Lithgow) for the government booty stranded at three points in a rugged, snowy landscape.

The vast scope of Renny Harlin’s direction is diminished if viewed on a small screen but, even then, this elemental drama of bodies in space remains commanding and exciting.

MORE Harlin: Exorcist: The Beginning, The Long Kiss Goodnight, A Nightmare on Elm St. 4

MORE mountain climbing: Touching the Void, Vertical Limit

© Adrian Martin January 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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