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Following a botched rescue attempt, mountain climber Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) leaves his cliff-side rescuing days behind him. Eight months after the incident, Gabe returns to the Rocky Mountains to collect his belongings and ask his girlfriend Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner) to come away with him. Meanwhile, a botched mid-air robbery leaves Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) and his band of evil thieves trapped atop a mountain, and missing three suitcases full of money. Qualen’s crew calls the mountain top rescue squad, and Walker is asked to assist one last time. Of course, he’s in over his head, and soon has to rescue his mountain top rescue friend Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker), who is kidnapped by the villains, and forced into being a guide.

I’m suddenly struck by the fact that this is the first time I’ve ever sat and watched Cliffhanger from beginning to end. This is surprising because I was and am such a big fan of vintage Renny Harlin. Harlin may not be a great storyteller, or the classiest guy on the block, but his brand of action film defines the late ‘80s and ‘90s, along with the likes of John McTiernan (who also happened to fall apart in the recent history). Few people move a camera, frame a shot, or rhythmically cut an epic scene quite like Harlin, and since the rise of the ever popular shaky-cam, the overused extreme speed cutting, and overabundance of digital augmentations, this brand has all but expired (even Harlin films don’t look like Harlin films anymore). Cliffhanger is clearly the director’s follow-up to Die Hard 2, his coming out party, and is technically speaking probably his best film. I happen to enjoy Deep Blue Sea and The Long Kiss Goodnight more, but those films benefit from solid scripts, and great senses of humour (most of which I’m sure is intended). I happen to suffer from vertigo, which makes Cliffhanger both a thrilling and a gruelling experience. The opening rescue scene is suspenseful enough to make me shit my pants, and the heights are dizzying enough to make me puke. I’m so happy I never saw this on the big screen. Things never quite add up to the promise of this intro, but it’s still an effectively entertaining movie.

The story is pretty much junk, equating all those ‘ Die Hard on a Blank’ accusations that were lodged at such films over the years (the only ‘good’ story I can recall on a Harlin flick would be The Long Kiss Goodnight), but it hardly matters as long as stuff is exploding, people are falling, and actors are chewing the scenery (sure, Lithgow can’t hold his British accent, but isn’t that half the fun?). This is effectively an ‘Oh No’ movie, which is a genre name I think I made up. These films are action machines, and the plot usually exists only to create more problems from the characters. Characters are thrown from the frying pan into the fire, into a bigger fire, into a bigger fire, and so on. Harlin’s own Deep Blue Sea is probably the prime example of the practice. Cliffhanger’s a little too focused on relative realism to quite get the ‘Oh No’ job done, but it’s a good early example. The R-rated violence (apparently the film had to be pretty substantially cut to avoid the NC-17) helps matters as well. The violence is also definitively early-‘90s—it’s pure movie violence, with very little emotional impact or genuine pain behind it (save one rather brutal beating). I kind of miss this kind of violence, which has turned into either equally unhealthy bloodless PG-13 violence, or really graphic gore, which has its place for sure, but not in everything.



It isn’t perfect, but I really can’t imagine Cliffhanger looking much better than it does on this 1080p disc. Having never seen the film in its 2.40:1 widescreen glory (the framing seems to point to the print coming from the 35mm master, not the 70mm blow-up), I’d probably be impressed by a standard definition transfer, but the HD enhancement is definitely a plus. Some of the edges are a little on the soft side, while others are a little edge-enhanced, but despite a few minor instances of print damage artefacts, this is an incredibly consistent transfer that is more or less only hindered by cinematography choices made during filming. It’s not a particularly colourful film, and it isn’t shot with extreme detail in mind. There are few hard edges, and the snowy landscapes make for a pretty even lighting scheme, so details are never really that sharp (the shots of the red helicopter against the grey and white mountains do pop without bleeding, however). The print is incredibly clean overall, featuring very little in the way of grain, and the colours are relatively noiseless and pure. Blacks are blacks, whites are whites, and the details are sharp enough that you’ll probably catch a few more spurts of blood from those healthy squibs (even if the increased detail hurts a few of the effects shots a bit).



Cliffhanger opens with a helicopter wrapping from the left rear channel, over to the right rear, and then around to the right stereo and front. Directionally speaking the effect is extremely realistic, the tone is pitch-perfect, and the bass is punchy and loud without overpowering the score or dialogue. Who knew a movie this old could sound this convincing? I can’t wait for Jurassic Park. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is extremely aggressive and hyper-active, making every lazy stream a rushing torrent, and every wind gust a practical hurricane. The track is a little light on subtle ambiance, but is rarely not immersive. The second act instigating plane crash is a pretty good spot to work your system out, and is impressive for the small details mixed among the rumbling bass. Trevor Jones’ score is too schmaltzy for words, and tries to capture John Williams’ magic rather than his own sound, but it’s hard to argue with the overall result or the music’s presence on this particular track.



The extras start with dual commentary tracks. The first track features director Renny Harlin and writer/star Stallone. Harlin starts things pretty excitedly, but he slows down fast, and there’s a lot of blank space here. I’ve enjoyed Harlin’s tracks in the past, but this one is stilted, low on info, and all around pretty drab. Stallone’s input is even more limited, cropping up a few times here and there, equating probably a matter of minutes altogether, and obviously recorded separately. The second track features technical crew members giving a more technical insight into the film. Editor Frank Urioste, effects supervisors Neil Krepela and John Bruno, and production designer John Vallone (who sound like they’ve been culled from three different interviews) keep things moving, and they’re relatively fact-filled (sadly more so than the director), answering some interesting technical questions about the pre-CG overload process, but this track is pretty dry tonally speaking.

The rest of the extras continue with a ‘Personal Introduction from Renny Harlin’ (04:50, SD), a brief talk with the director recorded for the original DVD special edition, and cut together with set interviews, and various EPK items. This is followed by two deleted scenes (08:20, SD), with special edition introductions from Harlin, and occasional behind the scenes footage. ‘Stallone on the Edge: The Making of Cliffhanger’ (20:00, SD) is a pretty goofy period EPK featuring raw behind the scenes footage, footage from the film, storyboards, and cast and crew interviews (Stallone is dressed in his Demolition Man garb). This is followed by two effects featurettes, (‘Sarah’s Fall’ and ‘Helicopter Explosion’, 07:30, SD), three storyboard comps (12:00, SD), and trailers.



I can say with little doubt that I haven’t heard my own named yelled this regularly in my entire life. I’m guessing those of you with names like John and Michael are used to it, but Gabe isn’t a particularly common movie hero name. The DTS-HD quality of this Blu-ray audio makes the whole thing just that much more unsettling. Fans of Cliffhanger should be plenty satisfied with this disc’s technical achievements—it sounds perfect, and looks just about as good as it possibly could—but the extra features are the same that accompanied the old special edition DVD, and they weren’t very good back then. Definitely worth a look for unabashed Renny Harlin fans like myself (I even liked Driven) that never got around to watching the film in widescreen.

* Note: The above images are taken from the UK Blu-ray release and resized for the page.