A previous reviewer called CLIFFHANGER a "guilty pleasure," and that is pretty much the way I see the film.
CLIFFHANER was a return to action form for its star Sylvester Stallone, after he had made his indelible mark on the genre with his RAMBO trilogy in '80s. His character here, Gabe Walker, is drastically scaled-down, befitting the film's "high" concept, which is basically "DIE HARD on a mountain."
Okay, so the premise (which is actually credited in this movie to a man named John Long) is not breathtakingly original---a nasty group of robbers led by evil Eric Qualen (John Lithgow, effectively playing his role to the hilt) lose three cases of American money in the Rockies and force Walker and companion Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker, he of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER) to help them find it. Director Renny Harlin---who also directed DIE HARD 2---brings all his action expertise to bear on the thin plot and actually succeeds in crafting a good action film out of it. He was lucky in getting cinematographer Alex Thomson on his team, and Thomson makes the most of the Italian Dolomites (standing in for the Rockies) mountain settings by creating shots that revel in its scenic grandeur and impart an appropriately dizzying sense of vertigo to the proceedings. And Harlin uses his penchant for fast action pacing to good effect here, generating an exciting sense of momentum that hardly ever lets up until the final showdown.
So, as action entertainment, CLIFFHANGER can be counted as a success. So why do I find it a "guilty" pleasure rather than simply a pleasure? Well, I have to admit that I found some of the violence in the second half of the film a little too much at times---not only gratuitous but sometimes downright brutal. The first half of the film is much more discreet with the bloodshed, relying more on genuine suspense-building and awesome special effects and stunts to make its proper effect (the first twelve-minute sequence is arguably the last word in sweat-inducing suspense and mounting tension). In the second half, though, the script (credited to Michael France and Stallone) and director let rip with gory abandon, and thus we get images of a black bad guy getting skewered upon a stalactite by the hero, and scenes like Tucker being kicked in the ribs and nose like a soccer ball for a good minute or so by a British terrorist (with some tasteless slo-mos to draw out the grand brutality). Did we really need to be subjected to such witless violence? Do the filmmakers assume that we are all so base in our tastes that we actually get turned on by this bloody stuff? Well, who knows? Maybe they have a point there, since I admit that the first time I saw this film I was shocked but hardly appalled by the violence on offer here. It is only after having seen it a few times since then that I am starting to question the validity of the violent scenes on offer here. Harlin started the film out so well, but then, after about an hour or so, it turns into a second-rate one-upping of icicle-in-the-eye scene in his superior DIE HARD 2.
Notwithstanding my unease about the violence in this movie, though, it must be said that CLIFFHANGER works. It is sometimes very exciting and suspenseful, the performances basically get the job done, and overall this is one of the better DIE HARD clones, thanks to some great cinematography and noteworthy action scenes. If neither of the first two DIE HARD films are available for rental, this will fit the bill. Just don't be surprised, after it is over, if you feel a little guilty about having enjoyed it as much as you did.