'Cliffhanger': There's no stopping Stallone's free fall to banality

MOVIES

May 28, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Cliffhanger"

Starring Sylvester Stallone, John Lithgow and Janine Turner

Directed by Renny Harlin

Released by Tri-Star

Rated R

** 1/2

I thought of the poor Scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz" as I watched "Cliffhanger." If it only had a brain! Handsome, energetic, expensive, it is also nearly bereft of evidence of intelligent life anywhere. Did humans actually make this film?

The movie is set in the Rockies, where Sylvester Stallone plays a familiar role from his exhaustive repertoire of one. It's the superstud macho bull goose big dog, only haunted by a tragedy in his past. How can you can tell he's haunted? His left eyelid droops exactly 1.2 centimeters. If it were 1.3 centimeters, you'd have to call it overacting.

Stallone plays a former park ranger and mountain rescue specialist named Gabe Walker who, in the movie's riveting opening moments, lets a rescuee slip from his grasp while dangling from a high-wire bridging the raw space between mountains.

The failed rescue is the best sequence in the picture: It's exactly what the movie that follows isn't -- incredibly tense, with the fear of death by falling blowing through it like a cruel Arctic wind.

And when the victim goes, she really goes. Some stuntwoman earned her bucks that day, sailing the thermoclines down, down, down as she flaps pitifully. It's so much more terrifying when a real person falls instead of a dummy. (My suspicion is they couldn't use a mannequin for the falls, because when they called, "Bring in the Stunt Dummy," all eyes would flash to the mighty star himself!)

Anyway, not only is she dead, but her boyfriend was Stallone's partner and now he's peeved. Actually, Michael Rooker in the role of second banana Hal Tucker is the only interesting performance in the lot; one responds to him more passionately than the pneumatically inflated, monosyllabic Stallone, because he seems smarter and more human.

By the time the plot clicks in, these two are like divorcees, with the great bitter gap of the girl's death between them, and in one sense, all that follows is an extended guy bonding ordeal, to reunite the two old pals. Wouldn't counseling have been cheaper?

It seems the U.S. Treasury is flying a hundred million in uncirculated bills by jet plane, but a renegade agent slays the guards and engineers a highly creative air-to-air transfer to a second jet containing a terrorist team headed by a ludicrously overqualified John Lithgow, doing his best Snidely Whiplash imitation. But one FBI hero ruins the attempt by blowing away half the highjackers and mortally wounding their plane before he dies. Thus the highjackers crash land high in the mountains (not impressively, in comparison to "Alive"), separated from the suitcases of loot, although they have a handy-dandy and totally absurd three-dimensional finding device of the sort that would even make James Bond snicker with disbelief.

The movie soon becomes an $70 million version of the $700,000 Lapp film "Pathfinder," only not as good. Same simple plot: Bad guys force good guys to lead them through the high mountain passes in search of booty. One good guy gets away and wages war on them. Being terrorists, they wage war back.

But plot is mere formality: It's a platform for director Renny Harlin to try and top himself with bravura action sequences (among his film credits: "Die Hard 2").Actually, the movie's a bit of a disappointment in this regard. Though much of the footage was gotten in the Italian Alps standing in for the Rockies, all too often the movie slips onto the backlot with powdered soap flakes pretending to be snow, or makes elaborate use of painted backdrops which always seem dead. Your brain my not pick up the difference but your eye will; the light suddenly goes thin and ZTC the backgrounds appear inert, not dramatic.

The movie could also use more zing in its writing. One of the traditions in grandiose, steroid-bloated male fantasies like this is some flashy repartee between villain and hero. Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman were quite amusing in this regard in the original "Die Hard." But the writing here, by Michael France and Stallone himself, is hopelessly infantile in the wisecrack department.

The film also suffers from overexuberant sadism: too many pointless deaths, too many gleeful beatings, too many close-ups of blood spatters dappling the snow. It's just a case of too much too much, an example of the disease of gargantuanism that infects so much of the Hollywood product today and this summer in particular. They must be giants up there; they certainly aren't recognizeable as men.

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