One of many movies in the 1990s to benefit from great practical effects complemented by some of the latest CGI (quality may vary, but the best moments are the ones that you don't realise have been manipulated and enhanced with effects in the editing suite), Cliffhanger remains a fantastic star vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, and a fun time for action movie fans.
Stallone is Gabe Walker, a mountain ranger shown in the opening sequence unable to save the life of a woman who falls to her death. That woman was the current squeeze of fellow ranger Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker), which causes no small amount of tension between the two. Some time passes, and it's on to the grand criminal plan at the heart of the plan. A daring plane heist by a dangerous crook named Qualen (John Lithgow) and his gang. With difficult weather conditions and cases of money dropped on the mountain range, Qualen and co. end up calling the local rangers for help, only to then force them into being their personal guides. Gabe and Hal do their best to gain the upper hand, but the odds are stacked against them. Well . . . they would be, if Gabe wasn't played by Sylvester Stallone. Obviously.
Directed by Renny Harlin, Cliffhanger is basically Die Hard on a mountain. It's a very simple, and very silly, action movie. It's also hugely enjoyable, thanks in no small part to the dedication from Harlin and his crew. There's one amazing set-piece in the first third of the movie, a plane to plane crossing performed by Simon Crane, but there's an impressive sense of scale throughout, and an enjoyable variety of threats and obstacles.
As well as having the main role, Stallone also co-wrote the screenplay with Michael France. It may not stand out as something startlingly original, but it's perfectly paced and manages to constantly hit the sweet spot between the maybe remotely plausible and the completely impossible, but very entertaining.
It's the kind of lead role sold as an action star lead role, obviously, and Stallone handles himself capably. Rooker is a decent enough supporting player, and Janine Turner also does well, playing the main female lead on the side of the heroes. On the side of the villains, Lithgow is a blast, getting himself some fantastic dialogue that he delivers with gusto. He cannot compete with others physically, but retains the upper hand with his wits and ability to mercilessly do whatever needs done to find his cash. Rex Linn and Craig Fairbrass have their share of moments, Leon has a memorable encounter with Stallone that doesn't end well, and Caroline Goodall is the one female member of the criminal gang.
You know exactly what you're getting with Cliffhanger, much like many other action blockbusters, and it's pretty much perfect when you're in the right mood for it. Bombastic music from Trevor Jones ensures few quiet moments in between the gunfire, explosions, and yelling, and it's a film best enjoyed on a big screen with a good surround sound system turned up loud.