‘Cliffhanger’ or — Escape from Derivative Mountain?
All I could remember about ‘Cliffhanger’ (1993) when I sat down to re-watch it last night was its oft repeated reputation of being “Die Hard on a mountain”. It’s a tired cliché trotted out about the film whenever it’s mentioned. There’s a reason for this though because ‘Cliffhanger’ is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, more than “Die Hard on a mountain”. During every single second of the film I kept thinking “This is ‘Die Hard’ on a mountain!” and not once, for a single second, did I think anything otherwise.
It’s also totally unoriginal with every line of dialogue, action beat, character trait, set piece, plot development etc lifted from the ‘Build Your Own 90’s Movie’ handbook, all the elements bolted together in a prepackaged order with no wiggle room for deviation.
It’s also very stupid, often making no geographical or physical sense with locations and “reality” frequently exhibiting slippery aspects at best. Still, at least we don’t have to worry about logic bogging us down and getting in the way of the fun.
And ‘Cliffhanger’ is fun. The film, and everybody else in the entire world, knows exactly what it is (“Die Hard on a”… WE KNOW!) so it doesn’t have an identity problem (in fact, it’s got a screamingly emphatic identity if anything). It’s also obvious in the extreme so you never have to do any cerebral heavy lifting (there’s nothing here to lift anyway) and the lack of accuracy means it can do whatever the hell it wants meaning the pacing here is satisfyingly brisk. So it’s a silly film, but never a boring one.
To achieve this illusion of “Die Hard on a mountain” ‘Cliffhanger’ utilises a surprisingly wide range of different techniques and pre-CGI effects, the majority of them impressively practical. Indeed, the opening plane to plane heist is, in my opinion, significantly more exciting than the one Nolan opens his ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012) with; this just feels, as looks, more urgent.
After that it’s pretty much an entertaining succession of spectacular location shooting of the Italian Dolomites, studio sets, detailed miniatures, model work, physical stunts, action set pieces, cat-and-mouse games, explosions and swearing. There are some gruesome, and quite frankly ridiculous, deaths and even though the tone is 90’s excessive machismo it’s played up to big time so never feels unnecessarily nasty or mean.
And that’s it. There’s really nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, more to say about ‘Cliffhanger’ other than that. If there is I’m buggered if I know what it could be. It’s an incredibly easy watch that’s constantly entertaining and while it never inspires or innovates it’s never once dull, just daft and daft and entertaining is better than inspired but boring.
Derivative, deliberately witless but effectively executed and fun, ‘Cliffhanger’ IS “Die Hard on a mountain” and that’s all we ever need, or ultimately can, know about it.