Cliffhanger could have been just another run-of-the-mill action thriller. It could have been one of the many Die Hard ripoffs, this time from Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin no less, another middling attempt for its star, Sylvester Stallone, to branch out from his Rocky and Rambo franchises.
But Harlin’s direction, and the effervescent supporting cast surrounding the typical, stoic Stallone hero made Cliffhanger an admirable entry in the Post-McClane action wave. Janine Turner, Michael Rooker, and John Lithgow and his band of wily villains help to lift up our hero and improve his own performance, but what might be the most crucial and brilliant four minutes of this thin-air adventure takes place right off the top.
The opening set piece of Cliffhanger, filmed in the Italian Alps doubling as Colorado, not only calibrated the intensity levels for the remainder of the film (perhaps setting the bar too high for the rest of the story to sustain), it destroys the friendship between Stallone’s Gabe and Michael Rooker’s character, Hal, therein developing another point of tension moving forward.
Lasting influence of the scene notwithstanding, these four minutes also contain the entirety of the film’s single greatest performance from Michelle Joyner as Sarah.
So many action thrillers with aspirations to be something as credible or entertaining as Cliffhanger don’t take the time to set a proper stage. Certain elements – an estranged relationship, a young kid – are tacked on to give our hero lazy notions of depth. This opening sequence is immediate, harrowing, absolutely terrifying, and as we are out on that line and see Sarah fall to her death, our fingernails dug into the seat cushions, we feel Gabe’s pain and guilt.
We feel Sarah’s death, the burden is straps to Gabe forever, mostly because of Joyner’s incredible performance – the stunt work was performed by Gia Phipps, who was raised and lowered five-hundred feet over and over, attached to a 3/16-inch steel cable.* But it is Joyner, as Sarah, delivering a fierce emotional wallop.
With the camera pushed in tight on her face, Joyner’s eyes convey that of true, honest panic, and her breathless screams and glassy eyes (a stark contrast to the timid girlfriend in over her head we first meet on the side of the mountain) seem to be begging us to help somehow. But we can’t move as her hand agonizingly slips more, and more, until her fate is sealed by the leather-snapping sound of her hand slipping free of Gabe’s grasp.
Cliffhanger is off and running, leaping headfirst into the action from there, and jaw-dropping set pieces ensue; but the weight of this death, of Sarah’s panicked pleas, and the collective guilt of everyone involved has seeped into the lives of this tight-knit mountain rescue “family.” The adds a layer of tragedy beneath everything, creating the same type of estrangement and tension between two characters that helped define Die Hard as something more than a big loud action movie. We want Gabe and Hal to make amends for what happened – much like we root for John and Holly – and the strained relationship gives Harlin’s story a necessary injection of emotional weight.
It’s a scene I love.
*Phipps was also the stunt double for Janine Turner during the shoot.