ALTERNATIVE 007


Children of Bond - Cliffhanger


Die Hard was a hugely influential film that spawned a whole subgenre. In that that regard it was rather like Jaws or Alien. In the wake of Jaws you got nature runs wild thrillers like Piranha, Grizzly, Orca: Killer Whale, Deep Blue Sea, Open Water, and so on. Alien clones included Creature, Inseminoid, Alien Contamination, Leviathan, Xtro, Galaxy of Terror, Pitch Black, and Forbidden World. Die Hard inspired films like Under Siege, Passenger 57, Air Force One, Sudden Death, and Speed.

Sly Stallone's Daylight is sort of Die Hard in a tunnel. Dredd with Karl Urban has a Die Hard feel, with the characters fighting their way out of a building. 16 Blocks, in which Bruce Willis plays a boozy NYPD Detective who runs into trouble escorting a witness to a safehouse is very Die Hard in its core idea and - with some modifications - might have a good Die Hard sequel. Die Hard on a train films include Under Siege 2, Death Train, Hostage Train, Unstoppable, and Money Train. Die Hard on a plane films include Strategic Command, Sonic Impact and Air Rage. The John Woo film Broken Arrow is somewhat Die Hard-ish with Christian Slater as a young pilot battling military mercenaries in the desert who are seeking to hijack nuclear weapons.

Half Past Dead is Die Hard in a prison. Lockout with Guy Pearce is Die Hard in Space - although it does owe more to Escape from New York. The Rock is Die Hard on Alcatraz. The 2013 movies Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down are both Die Hard in the White House. The former has a sequel - London Has Fallen. London Has Fallen tried the Die Hard franchise approach of opening the action out but it was poorly received in comparison to the first film. For my own personal choice of the best Die Hard clone though I'm going to pick Cliffhanger. Cliffanger has plenty of James Bond riffs too - which is fitting because the original Die Hard is not bereft of them either. Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber is like the best Bond villain we never got. Gruber even has a Bond style henchman.

Cliffhanger is a 1993 action film directed by Renny Harlin. Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) is a mountain climbing expert who works - along with Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker) and Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner) - for a rescue team high in the Rocky Mountains. One fateful day, while moving precariously from a mountaintop to a helicopter along a steel cable, the harness belonging to Hal's girlfriend Sarah (Michelle Joyner) rips and leaves her hanging on for dear life. Gabe insists on going out to save Sarah in the resulting panic but despite his best efforts she falls to her death. Hal blames him for Sarah's death and Jessie is annoyed that Gabe departed after the tragedy and left them all to cope alone.

Months later, Gabe returns again to collect some belongings and leave the rescue business for good. But while he faces Jessie again for the first time in ages a distress call comes in on the radio. They don't know it yet but the distress call is a cunning ruse that will lead to great danger. The call derives from a gang of ruthless high-tech thieves - led by the nutty but urbane Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) - who have just attempted a big heist on a US Treasury plane flying over the Rocky Mountains. After a spectacular air-to-air money transfer doesn't quite go according to plan, three suitcases containing $100 million in uncirculated US currency are lost somewhere in the mountains and Qualen intends to force the unwitting rescue team to help him find them whether they want to cooperate or not...

Cliffhanger is basically Die Hard on a mountain range and underrated when it comes to all the action films produced over the last decades. It serves as a solid vehicle for its star Sylvester Stallone and has some amazing locations (the film was shot in Italy I believe) designed to induce a sense of vertigo in the viewer. It is absolute nonsense of course but expensive nonsense made by a director who knows how to stage action and stunts and blow things up. It is little wonder that Renny Harlin, back in his nineties heyday, was heavily courted to direct a Bond film. Harlin turned down the film that would eventually become GoldenEye.

The elaborate plane heist section near the beginning of Cliffhanger involving Qualen's gang is just a little too long perhaps but serves as an impressive aerial set-piece - inspiring a similar scene in a Harrison Ford film called Air Force One - and is the type of grand scale villain caper you wish the James Bond series still bothered to do. Before this though, Cliffhanger opens with Gabe attempting to rescue Hal's girlfriend from the steel cable and this sequence is borderline terrifying for anyone who doesn't like heights. Having Stallone fail to save Sarah doesn't quite subvert our expectations too much because it's all rather telegraphed to set up the hero who has to redeem himself and get his confidence back but the sequence is still tense nonetheless.

Cliffhanger was made in an era of cinema just before it became possible to do almost everything and anything on a computer and films slowly started to look more and more like cartoons. With Cliffhanger we get a mixture of studio and matte backdrops but also a great deal of authentic locations and real old-fashioned stunt work. The story follows the Die Hard blueprint with Gabe held captive by the gang - who want to exploit his mountain climbing skills and local knowledge to find the suitcases full of money - and then getting loose to do battle and sabotage their plans high in the snowy mountain range.

We get a lot of Stallone mountain climbing and grunting in Cliffhanger and there are some impressive shots of him appearing to be literally hanging from a ledge or rocky mountainside by one arm. This film still looks good today and the stunts and action are well up to par. watching this film makes you wish the Bond franchise would find a way to have a few mountain sequences again. 
While some of dialogue in Cliffhanger is a bit hokey and uninspired - British actor Craig Fairbrass (who seems to be typecast in gangster films these days) as one of Qualen's goons has some awful lines in particular - and the occasional sentimental/emotional interludes don't always work, Cliffhanger does what it says on the tin in its very best moments from the opening rescue attempt to a vicious fight between Stallone and a knife wielding baddie (who would make a great Bond henchman) in an ice-cave to the explosive helicopter themed climax. The film harkens back to the eighties heyday of Sly and Arnie too with one or two rather violent moments.
One thing that gives Cliffhanger a boost for me personally is the cast. Sylvester Stallone is an enjoyable cult character with his ridiculous grunting during the fights/action but also has a slightly haunted and sad quality that always makes him quite an interesting presence in films. Cliffhanger sort of captures Sylvester Stallone in the twilight of his absolute prime years as an action star.
John Lithgow replaced Christopher Walken as the chief baddie Eric Qualen in Cliffhanger just prior to shooting and - although Walken would have been fun - Lithgow camps it up to reasonable effect, playing Qualen like a more foul-mouthed version of Dick Dastardly. "You want to kill me, don't you?" sneers Lithgow (who speaks in, for some reason, a toffy and theatrical English accent). "Well, get a number and get in line." It's a shame the script can't give Lithgow just a few more witty lines to dispense because Qualen is an enjoyably ruthless villain and Lithgow is always good value in anything he turns up in. Lithgow would probably have been good value as a Bond villain.
Anyone who has a soft-spot for an old television series called Northern Exposure will also enjoy the presence of Janine Turner as Jessie. Even good old Ralph Waite from The Waltons pitches up in Cliffhanger as one of the rescue team. Cliffhanger has some exciting moments and some likeable characters you can root for. A sharper script would have helped and there are a couple of Bill and Ted style young extreme sports slacker types who mercifully don't get too much screen time but this is a solid entry in the action stakes and one of the better Sylvester Stallone vehicles. As far as Die Hard inspired films go, this is one of the best.

- Jake
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