I'd like to tell you about the most profound movie experience of my, or any lifetime. Instead, I'll tell you about Cliffhanger, which may well have been a profound experience for Sylvester Stallone, but for most of us was only a thrill ride action picture. Quite a thrill ride it is too, with some breathtaking stunts amidst some of the most majestic mountain scenery on film. Put your brain on hold and well…hang on with this new special edition DVD from Columbia TriStar.
Director Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea, Die Hard 2, Long Kiss Goodnight) is certainly no stranger to action movies. He's very good at action sequences and putting good people together to make it look real. Sylvester Stallone (Rocky, Rambo) of course has been an acknowledged action star himself, and was a natural for this role. He'd made some attempts to branch out which failed at the box office (I jokingly referred to this film as "Stop me from having my Mom Shoot me again"), and the time was ripe for him to go back to what he knew and excelled at. So he pumped up for 6 months to get ready for this physically demanding part and then took off to the Italian Alps for some high altitude shooting. The scenes in the mountains were stunning; and there was plenty of thrills watching him and other actors often hanging by their fingertips from thousands of feet up. Many times Harlin made sure you realized it was really the actors up there; which gave a great sense of realism to the film.
If you don't already know it, in a nutshell this is the story of Gabe Walker, a mountain climber rescue worker who is caught up in events surrounding a daring mid-air money heist. John Lithgow of TV's Third Rock fame plays Qualen, the man who engineers the robbery of a jet plane in mid-air of $100 million but ends up crashing his plane and losing the suitcases of money somewhere in the mountains. A fake distress call brings Walker (Stallone) and ex-friend Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker, Brown's Requiem) to the rescue, only to find they're being held at gunpoint and forced to act as mountaineering guides to the missing suitcases. The rest of the film concerns those two and Gabe's fellow rescue worker and pilot Jessie (Janine Turner, Steel Magnolias, Northern Exposure) as they try to chase and elude the criminals across mountain tops and down cliff faces. The action is fast-paced and thrill a minute as people fall to their death or nearly do throughout.
Character development isn't what you'd call deep, but an effort was made to give the characters motivations and emotional attachments, and they worked on the level you'd expect in an action picture. Lithgow's Qualen was plenty evil and sinister, showing a complete disregard for anyone's life but his own. Even those associating with him knew this; in one of the films most spectacular stunts a man crosses from plane to plane by a cable a la Air Force One (but years earlier) and when asked why he came before the money replies "I didn't trust you to wait for me after the money." No honor among thieves here. Stallone and Turner had good chemistry and performed many of their own stunts. Stallone especially carried off the many action scenes without a hitch in a very physically demanding role, not even considering how much of it was done well over 10,000 feet elevation in the cold, thin air. This is the classic Stallone in his element.
It's hard to mess up shooting scenery as beautiful as this, but I'll still give due credit to Harlin, whose direction was superb; using cranes, helicopters, and computer controlled cameras mounted on cliff faces to get some great shots. His often circling camera and moving shots lent tension and an awe-inspiring sense of danger and great perspective of the mountains and heights the film was being shot at. The cinematography is simply breathtaking.
What else is there to say about this film? It was a big budget action picture, and had the production values and resulting picture to warrant the cost. From the first intense reel to the final helicopter shot of the mountain peaks, watching Cliffhanger is an experience; just eat some popcorn and let the thrills come. After several viewings I'm still hooked. Maybe it's just a guy thing, but the film works.
Columbia has come through with a great DVD here as well. The anamorphic transfer is excellent; the source print was free of nicks, scratches, or blemish, there are virtually no artifacts, colors are superb, and detail is sharp. There is a hint of edge enhancement in a few places that go by quickly, and on occasion fleshtones are slightly off, but these are tiny flaws in an otherwise clear, excellent picture. Even subtle highlights and shades of colors are delineated and look fantastic. It looks even better than the already excellent first release.
With a first rate picture comes first rate sound. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is spacious, the soundstage deep and wide, with aggressive use of surrounds, and every other channel for that matter. Action sequences come alive and even subtle ambiance is clearly heard and experienced. Dialogue, with the exception of a couple of problems from a heavy British accent, is also clear and well placed across the front. This is another soundtrack to show off your system with.
This special edition is not lacking in the extras department. There is a wealth of extra content here. Two commentary tracks, a 20 minute featurette, 2 deleted scenes with commentary, special effects "how it was done" reels, storyboard comparisons, photo galleries, two trailers (one of which even has a "how it was made" feature), and good Talent files are all here. The first commentary track has director Renny Harlin and Sylvester Stallone. Recorded separately, Renny gives plenty of insight into the making of the film while Stallone offers his experiences and anecdotes periodically. An excellent commentary track. I should mention here how well Renny Harlin has supported the DVD format; giving lots of time and effort for this DVD and for Deep Blue Sea. The second track is with film editor Frank J. Urioste, visual effects supervisors Neil Krepela and John Bruno, and production designer John Vallone. They explain a lot about how shots were put together or what effects were used to bring them off. I found it very interesting. The 20 minute making-of featurette "Stallone on the Edge" is a combination of marketing fare with some real behind-the-scenes footage, and had some humor and a showed the very real danger often inherent in the shooting. A nice addition and worth seeing. The two deleted scenes have commentary explaining why they were cut; mainly for the reason that they weren't trying to portray Stallone as Rambo or too superhuman, and these particular two stunts went past awesome into unbelief. You know it's hard when they cut action sequences out of an action picture, but it was done for the right reasons here. There is also a 4 minute introduction to the film by Renny Harlin, giving an overview of why he made the film, thankfully not forced upon you at the beginning of the film each time. Just watch it once from the special features menu. A 2 page leaflet of production notes awaits inside the case. A very respectable and interesting collection of extras here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What's not to like? Well, Harlin in my opinion is a great action director but not quite so great when it comes to human drama. Of course you're not watching Cliffhanger for the intimate depth of emotion anyway. There were a couple fight scenes I thought went on a bit too long as well; particularly the "soccer player" fight scene with Michael Rooker. These are minor quibbles in a film that really works for me.
I don't have a darn thing to complain about on the disc itself.
If you've been waiting for the definitive version of Cliffhanger to buy, wait no longer. This is it. I highly recommend it to action fans, Stallone fans, and pretty much any guy. People who fall into none of those categories could perhaps enjoy it because of the strong female characters in Janine Turner and one of the villains. Highly recommended for purchase.
Whew! I will render no judgment against those who spent a year in the Italian Alps to make this picture. Columbia has been responsible for some great work and still is with this great DVD. My congratulations all around.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track with Renny Harlin and Sylvester Stallone
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