Sony // 1993 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // December 7th, 2004
Icy peaks, dizzying heights, a ruthless criminal, and Sylvester Stallone's smoothly-shaved legs. Sounds like a recipe for terror.
During the glut of over-the-top action pictures that blew up in our faces during the early 1990s, action stars found it increasingly more difficult to convincingly reinvent themselves in order to convince movie goers to plop down another greasy five-dollar bill for a ticket. During the summer of 1993, action-hounds were treated to some decent thrills (Jurassic Park, In the Line of Fire, The Fugitive) as well as some indecent dung (The Last Action Hero, Another Stakeout, and Super Mario Brothers). Amid all this clang, clatter, and incendiary excitement, good ol' Sly Stallone tried to slip in a heartstopper of his own, Cliffhanger. While the premise seemed full of potential, this Renny Harlin project was afflicted with just about every action movie plot device that you've ever seen. Set amid the majestic Italian Alps and snowy Colorado plains, the vistas were breathtaking, the violence was bombastic, and the audience was bored. Few in attendance were wondering what might happen next; then just wondered when it would all be over. Brrr -- talk about a chilly reception.
Stallone clambers onto the screen as Gabe Walker, a mountain ranger who has been at odds with his girlfriend Jessie (Janine Turner) and his friend Hal (Michael Rooker) after the accidental death of Hal's girlfriend. Like the "prodigal son," Gabe returns after an 8-month absence to collect some belongings and quit mountain rescue work for good. Coincidentally, international criminal Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) and his band of hired goons is at that point attempting a mid-air hijack and heist of $300 million. The heist goes bad, the hijacker's plane goes down, and three cases of thousand-dollar bills are lost in the mountainous terrain. The crooks put in a bogus distress call and -- you got it -- lure Gabe, Hal, and Jessie into a trap in which the rescuers are held at gunpoint in order to retrieve the lost loot.
So, have you heard this one before? Of course you have. That's the biggest problem with this Die Hard-in-the-Alps extravaganza -- it has nothing fresh to offer beyond the panoramic views. The opening sequence mishap is easily anticipated. The time lapse and subsequent exposition tells us it's another one of those setups where the unwitting hero has suffered a loss of confidence, purpose, faith, or what have you. Then, the extreme peril that ensues at the hands of a maniacal madman is just, well, mundane. Just as some call the game of golf "a nice walk ruined," so, too, does Cliffhanger come off as a nice action movie that's uninteresting. Throw in far too many convenient escape devices, rushed exposition to bridge gaps in logic, and innocent victims being dispatched like clubbed seals, and you have a potboiler of an action adventure that neither excites nor engages it audience.
(Others, I've learned, have seen much good in this picture, as evidenced by an earlier judgment posted here. Fair by me.)
The big deal about this particular release of Cliffhanger is the new Superbit Edition treatment it's getting. If you're a regular visitor to DVD Verdict you're likely aware of the ongoing discussion (sometimes heated) regarding the merits (or lack thereof) inherent in Sony's touted Superbit treatments. Essentially, all extras such as commentary tracks, branching features, featurettes, trailers, and so on are unceremoniously discarded into the bit bucket in order to utilize more of the disc space for an enhanced picture and a superior DTS audio mix. On the one hand, I appreciate the thinking here; as an armchair audio- and videophile, I applaud the better quality that a Superbit product delivers. (Yes, I believe the picture is much better than what you'll find on feature-laden discs and a DTS track simply outperforms all others, hands down.) The gotcha, however, is that many film fans decry the loss of bonus material and...I agree with them. I'm not a proponent of numerous releases of the same film (see my reviews of The Chronicles of Riddick: Pitch Black and Hellboy -- Director's Cut for a full sermon on that topic), and I don't feel that consumers should be forced to trade off features when attempting to make a purchase. Instead, I would get behind the whole Superbit gig with more vigor if Sony (you can call them Columbia-Tristar) would offer the whole shebang in one shiny silver package. To their defense, Sony has shown such good judgment in its Superbit treatment of Hollow Man -- Superbit Deluxe Edition, which included a second disc that housed most of the extras from the previous special edition release. It was pricier, sure; but it was a more complete package and pleasing to both camps.
So does the Superbit sheen really deliver on this release of Cliffhanger? Sure does. Although the film is easily dismissed, the technical prowess of this disc is quite impressive. Starting with the picture, the transfer is presented in the original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The image quality is really quite stunning with detail so crisp you can practically feel the craggy roughness of every peak, ridge, and crevice. Even more impressive, I think, is the perfectly rendered color levels here. The snow is a steady white that's never glary and never shimmers annoyingly, while the red rescue helicopter is bright, vibrant, and deeply saturated without smearing or bleeding into the snowy backdrops. Flesh tones look excellent and natural as well. Contrast is perfectly controlled throughout and black levels are deep and velvety. As the scenic value is the only redeeming element of this picture, the Superbit treatment squeezes out every last drop of goodness available.
As for the audio, you'll find the usual Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix and a superior DTS 5.1 Surround track. If you don't yet have DTS decoding capability in your equipment, get it. The difference is remarkable, really; the DTS track expands the soundstage magnificently and offers a more realistic recreation of mountainous echoes, rushing wind, and the numerous explosions and helicopter fly-bys. The Dolby Digital track sounds pretty good, too, but it just can't compete with DTS.
Extras? Well, as this isn't a Superbit Deluxe offering, there ain't no extras.
Technophiles will certainly find plenty to enjoy in the presentation here, but those who are looking for new adventures in the action movie realm will likely find more thrills by constructing an igloo to avoid watching Cliffhanger.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1993
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Sony Superbit Site