For Rocky Mountain Rescue, the mission is almost routine: locate five climbers. With the woman he loves and his best friend , Gabe Walker braves the icy peaks only to discover that the distress call is really a trap set by merciless international terrorist Eric Qualen. Now millions of dollars and their own lives hang in the balance. Against explosive firepower, bitter cold, and dizzying heights, Walker must outwit Qualen in a deadly game of hide-and-seek.
I must confess, I've never been much of a Sly Stallone fan. Of course I love 'Rocky' (who doesn't?), and as sequels go, 'Rocky II' is pretty good as well, but Stallone's dumb lug, bulging bicep, superhuman screen persona always seemed cartoonish to me, and his incessant milking of the 'Rocky' and 'Rambo' franchises long after the wells had run dry seemed more about fueling his ego and padding his coffers than producing cinematic art. Yet despite my aversion to Stallone, I must also confess a special guilty fondness for 'Cliffhanger,' a testosterone-infused, over-the-top action movie that showcases the star to his best advantage while providing nonstop thrills set against a breathtaking alpine backdrop. Director Renny Harlin keeps our adrenaline pumping while reining in Stallone, who files one of his most natural and sensitive portrayals, displaying an attractive vulnerability and a bit of uncharacteristic weakness that make him seem like less of a Neanderthal than usual.
Eight months after a tragic accident for which he holds himself responsible, a guilt-ridden Gabe Walker (Stallone) returns to the Colorado ranger station where he once worked as a rescuer in the hope of rekindling his romance with colleague Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner), who resents his self-pitying, hide-from-the-world attitude. As the couple tries to hash things out, a distress call comes in from a stranded party lost high in the mountains, and Jessie urges a reluctant Gabe to confront his demons and jump back into the fold. Yet little does Gabe know he's walking into a trap set by the villainous Eric Qualen (John Lithgow), whose plot to steal millions from the U.S. Treasury has hit a horrific snag, and he needs the expertise of experienced mountain men to find a trio of cash-filled attachés scattered over miles of icy terrain. What follows is a desperate hunt, as Gabe and cohort Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker) try to outwit Qualen and his ruthless henchmen, protect Jessie, and save their own skins.
'Cliffhanger' is one of those check-your-brain-at-the-door, buckle-up-and-enjoy-the-ride blockbusters packed with enough well choreographed action to leave even the genre's most discriminating connoisseurs breathless. The breakneck pace never flags, so there's no time to ruminate over the silly story or question the viability of some of the death-defying stunts. And the humdinger of an opening – a harrowing rescue attempt that transpires atop an 8,000-foot-high rocky dome – packs such a wallop, Harlin spends the rest of the film frantically trying to top it. He never quite succeeds, but strings together a slew of riveting, white-knuckle sequences, most of which strain credulity, but provide plenty of bang for our entertainment buck. From the dramatic mountain scenery and violent confrontations to fiery explosions, an avalanche, and the animated (and, at times, deliciously campy) performances of the first-rate cast, 'Cliffhanger' stokes the senses for almost all of its 112-minute running time.
One of the most impressive things about 'Cliffhanger' is the high quotient of real stunts and shots. Harlin used blue screen technology sparingly to enhance the action sequences, so the bulk of the rock climbing, cable crawling, and aerial dives are performed by either the actors themselves or by nerves-of-steel doubles in high-altitude locations, and the authenticity adds considerably to the spectacle and tension. Such commitment to truth raises the film above others in its class, as do the stunning alpine vistas, which continually vie for our attention and ratchet up the impact of both frenetic and sedate scenes.
Stallone commands the screen well, but a strong supporting cast makes 'Cliffhanger' feel more like an ensemble effort than a streamlined star vehicle. Lithgow is an absolute hoot as the suave, heartless Qualen, a bad guy in the Alan Rickman 'Die Hard' mold who'll stop at nothing to achieve his goals. Lithgow knows just how far to push the envelope, and seems to relish both his dastardly role and going toe-to-toe with Stallone in a surprisingly physical climactic fistfight, in which he kicks some serious butt. The expressive Turner also asserts herself well, combining sensitivity with spunk, and creating a more comfortable romantic chemistry with Stallone than many of his other leading ladies. Caroline Goodall as Qualen's devilish partner in crime is another strong female presence, and 'The Waltons' papa, Ralph Waite, lends some quiet class and heart to the proceedings.
After such change-of-pace debacles as 'Oscar' and 'Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot,' 'Cliffhanger' marked a return to form for Stallone, but the renaissance didn't last long, and this terrifically entertaining thriller arguably stands as the actor's last great movie. Of course, he'll always be remembered as Rocky and Rambo, but 'Cliffhanger' remains a notable bright spot on the actor's otherwise lackluster résumé, and will continue to captivate action fans over repeated viewings for years to come.
First, the good news. Sony's 1080p 'Cliffhanger' transfer outclasses the previous Superbit DVD by a fair margin. In a side-by-side comparison, the MPEG-4 AVC encode possesses increased clarity, more balanced color temperature, and a cleaner, sleeker overall look. Gone are the rampant specks and marks that marred the DVD presentation, and a touch more vibrancy lends the Blu-ray a more immediate feel. Such positive elements, however, can't compensate for the lackluster look of what should be an eye-popping, razzle-dazzle effort. From the moment the strikingly fuzzy Tri-Star logo unfolds on screen, it's evident that 'Cliffhanger' will not come close to meeting visual expectations.
Dull, flat, and soft are adjectives that kept spinning around my brain as I watched this disc. With all the spectacular scenery on display – from jagged, snow-capped peaks to lush, verdant valleys – it's a shame there's so little dimensionality to the image. Even close-ups, which are pleasingly sharp, lack that high-def sizzle that brings detail to the fore. Though some bursts of well saturated color brighten the screen, the source material often exhibits a faded, washed out appearance that keeps us at arm's length from the action. Muted contrast, of course, is a huge culprit, but the prevailing softness keeps background details sketchy and prevents fabrics from exhibiting proper texture. Fleshtones run a little yellowy, and black levels aren't as solid and inky as one might hope, but whites are stable and don't bloom even in bright sunlit scenes.
As the film progresses, the picture does improve, albeit slightly, but it never achieves the vibrant levels a story like this requires. Some noisy backgrounds and a bit of banding further hamper the image, but edge enhancement is absent and no other digital anomalies creep into the presentation. Grain is kept to a minimum throughout – a bit of a surprise for a 1993 film – but the image doesn't appear overly processed. While I realize 'Cliffhanger' is 17 years old, I still expected this big-budget blockbuster to exhibit more high-def pop. Without question, the movie has never looked better on home video, but this is far from the dream transfer fans have been craving.
Though the video may be lacking, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track nearly hits a homerun. Active, immersive, and filled with both bombastic and subtle surround accents, the lossless audio perfectly complements this high-octane thrill ride and trumps the Superbit's lossy DTS track but good. The helicopter blades in the opening scene set the tone with a weighty presence that's spread out over all five speakers and enhanced with a fair amount of solid bass. And when the action shifts to the Denver treasury, we're treated to crisp, multi-channel detail as sorting machines shuffle bills. Ambient effects are incredibly lifelike; at times, the sound of birds chirping was so realistic, I could have sworn my living room was transformed into an aviary. The majestic music score by Trevor Jones also sounds great, wrapping around the listener as crystal clear brass tones test the extremes of the upper register without a hint of distortion. Front-channel separation is top-notch, too, and some hefty bass frequencies add sizeable rumbles to jet engines, a rough plane landing, an avalanche, and a couple of notable explosions.
There's so much activity on this track, dialogue often isn't as prominent as it should be. A few phrases here and there are difficult to understand, but never incomprehensible. That's the only blemish on this otherwise sterling audio effort that really ramps up our involvement in the film.
All the supplements from the previous special edition DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release, and it's a nice lineup that should please fans. Except for the film's trailer, all material is presented in standard definition.
One of Sylvester Stallone's best films, 'Cliffhanger' remains a wildly entertaining, thrill-a-minute action-adventure that keeps attention riveted despite a far-fetched story and disappointing 1080p transfer. Though the video isn't quite up to snuff, the terrific lossless audio hurls us into the fray and helps salvage this high-def experience. The disc still rates a recommendation, but it's not the slam-dunk winner fans like myself hoped Sony would deliver.