Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Cliffhanger
Sometimes, it is only in hindsight that we truly see the cheese baked in with a film. 1993’s Cliffhanger is one such movie. It came out a time when Sylvester Stallone was at the height of his tentpole movie powers and it was backed by an exciting new voice in action cinema: Renny Harlin.
Yeah, I know, that last bit sounds like an alien language translated through a David Lynch designed radio broadcasting at 1540 on the AM dial. But, at one time, Harlin was an up-and-coming action film director. His success with A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master led him to a dalliance with Alien 3 and, eventually, to The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. Within two weeks of that film flopping, he scored a hit with Die Hard 2; a film I might talk about in a couple of months. In making that sequel work — no, really, it does — everyone in Hollywood wanted to work with him. He courted a number of projects but eventually found a partner in Stallone.
Also, you should probably get use to Stallone as a semi-regular presence on Your Weekend Cheesy Movie.
The plot sees Stallone as Gabe Walker, a daredevil member of Rocky Mountain Rescue. When his antics contribute to the death of a colleague’s girlfriend, his world comes unhinged. That’s probably the best term to use as other more apt words relate directly to the high altitude accident. Some months later, Gabe returns to the mountains in an attempt to get his girlfriend Jessie (Janine Turner) to come with him to the city. Meanwhile, international bad man Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) arranges a mid-air heist of retired US currency. The heist doesn’t quite go off as planned and the money caches end up scattered across the Rocky Mountains.
When Gabe learns Hal (Michael Rooker), his former friend and colleague from the accident, has gone up into the mountains to help some stranded hikers, Gabe decides to beat him there. I think he also wants to talk things out, but he’s unwilling to say that. Soon, the two learn the hikers are Qualen and his gang. Forced to help Qualen locate the missing money, the pair become uneasy allies.
So yeah, that plot sounds like a reasonable set up for an action movie. And in 1994, it was. Cliffhanger earned respectable numbers at the box office at a time before skyrocketing costs and cinematic universes required $100 million opening weekends to break even. And despite earning several Golden Raspberry Award nominations that year, it is rarely listed as part of Harlin’s legendarily bad film output. I guess when you consider films like Deep Blue Sea, Mindhunters or The Covenant, Cliffhanger starts to look like a respectable action film.
But make no mistake, it has aged into fine cheese.
What the plot summary doesn’t tell you is all the nuance contributing to a fine bouquet of silly flavors. Lithgow gives Qualen an overwrought British accent and, occasionally, the mannerisms of Lord John Wharfin. Rooker, being Rooker, gives his character so much damned earnestness, it gets to be uncomfortable at times. Stallone, as Gabe and a credited screenwriter, tries to inject some truly cringeworthy quips into the flick. And then there are the two extreme sports enthusiasts who sound like understudies for Bill and Ted. When I heard their catchphrase, “We like it extreme!” during a viewing in 2000, I gleaned something new from the flick: Harlin, who would go on to make Cutthroat Island, likes cheese.
Even if it isn’t his intent, his flicks have a core of cheesy goofiness in them. The weird thing, though, is that they come from that same earnest place as Rooker’s performance. In Cliffhanger, you see Harlin trying to play his cheese straight. The action scenes are just a little too overblown to be credible. They’re also outsized for the emotional stakes of the main characters. He wants you care about Gabe and Hal’s torn friendship. He wants you to believe everyone is in danger when the bridge gets rigged to explode. And by gum, he wants you to wail like Rooker when the group’s father figure, helicopter pilot Frank (Ralph Waite), gets killed. Whether an action beat or an emotional one, Harlin wants you to take the moment for what it is and yet can’t help but embed those moments with silliness.
Then again, maybe Harlin’s earnestness reads fine in his native Finland, but looks cheesy to American eyes. Considering how often he’s been nominated for Golden Raspberry Awards, it might be a theory worth exploring some day.
Either way, Cliffhanger is entertaining if dopey. Actors like Rooker and Lithgow give their all to undercooked characters and Janine Turner acquits herself well despite only being in the movie to get captured. It also has some beautiful photography of the Italian Alps and a lovely score by Trevor Jones. But most importantly, it has Stallone, who might turn in a cheesy performance, but is still more animated than five modern action stars put together. It’s also relic of a bygone days, when action movies could be about stolen cash and not the end of reality.
Cliffhanger is available to stream for free on Sony’s Crackle service. It’s also available for rent on streaming services like Amazon and Google Play. If you still like disc formats, it can be found in a number of “Action Triple Feature” budget DVD releases.