The iconic sequence of Cliffhanger has Sylvester Stallone, completely shirtless, underneath a thick sheet of ice battling Travers (Rex Linn). The sheer audacity of that scene relies on the “Jaws Effect,” which states once an audience is hooked, they’ll believe anything.
Considering the multiple explosions, falling bridges, perilous climbs, and numerous gunfire escapes, it is safe to say the audience is sufficiently primed in Cliffhanger’s theatrics.
This is a loud, boisterous action movie, perfect for Stallone’s brand of “guy” movies. Cliffhanger has the benefit of setting, sticking the usual booms on top of Italy. Photography is stunning, adding a sense of vertigo and genuine tension to the crazed action/adventure.
Director Renny Harlin goes for gusto from the opening scene, where Stallone tries to rescue a trapped woman, hanging from a rope above a mountain range. Everything is established here, including characters with above-average depth for a film like this, the appropriate sense of height, and the reality of it all. Without the aid of modern effects, everything here is real, and the movie is better for it.
Yes, the movie falls victim to countless groan inducing clichés, including the stupidity of the villains not shooting the heroes at point blank when they have the chance. The benefit for the audience are some classic movie bad guy finishers, including Stallone power-lifting a mouthy Kynette (Leon) onto an icicle. Amazingly, he still has the strength despite numerous punches to his ribs and kidneys. Apparently, Ivan Drago toughened up Stallone in Rocky IV more than we knew.
Things like that are exactly why Stallone shirtless underneath a sheet of ice works, and John Lithgow pulling off a particularly evil British accent doesn’t hurt either. Cliffhanger’s location has helped it age, and it carries few of the usual ‘90s action movie pitfalls. Well, except for the two “extreme sports dudes.” Those guys were mercy kills.
There is quite a bit to discuss when dissecting Cliffhanger’s Blu-ray debut from Sony. The simple positives include a gorgeous finale, beginning with the ice battle. The crisp mountain photography here is exceptional, bringing out the ridges and ledges wonderfully, despite the presence of some light, minimal high contrast edge ringing. Detail and depth are wonderful, and the cold blues of the water offer some of the best saturation in the entire film.Small cracks in the ice are clearly delineated.
Of course, there are about 90 additional minutes to consider, and that is where things become complicated. While it may sound odd, Cliffhanger does not have enough grain. In fact, much of the film carries a digital, clear sheen that has undoubtedly underwent some form of manipulation. Flesh tones, with a weirdly pastel, chalky hue seem to indicate DNR, but none of the other problems typically associated with the process are evident. In comparison to the trailer on the disc, while it lacks in numerous areas, grain is not only notable, it looks natural.
Facial detail is odd, with sweat clearly defined on one side of the face, and then disappearing into a pit of solid color on the other. Environments take on a soft, unimpressive level of detail, a shame considering how gorgeous this photography could look. One of the earliest shots, done from overhead as Stallone reaches two trapped climbers, looks completely off, with the actors involved appearing as blobs.
Contrast is bland, although this seems to have been artificially brightened in darker scenes, revealing noise and grain inside what should be pure blacks. It is also important to note that the black levels are unnatural, appearing in a weird glowing state at times that is highly distracting. Colors are diluted, appropriate for the photography, but then something vibrant shows up like the red helicopter and makes you wonder what happened to everything else. Ringing is sporadic, yet a nagging issue.
The source itself is in excellent shape, without a notable blemish or speck to be concerned about. Then again, if the digital manipulation used to restore it sapped all of the texture, maybe the damage was better off left in. To be clear, this is not a terrible transfer, just one that feels like it has more potential than has been realized here.
Thankfully, everything about this powerful DTS-HD effort is about perfect. A fantastic, highly underrated score from Trevor Jones begins pushing through the fronts and surrounds aggressively during the opening scene. Action scenes switch gears to heavy drums that load the subwoofer with plenty to process, and it does so cleanly.
As expected, copious amounts of action litter the soundfield with bullets and debris. The plane crash that kick-starts the story has swirling papers and other objects whipping around. Fronts are clearly separated, capturing small audio cues and whipping winds in conjunction with the rears. Engine sounds, whether from the helicopter or the planes, are wonderfully clean when they hit the low end. The plane crash not only delivers that satisfying rumble, it also captures the snow being shuffled and kicked up along with the collapsing miniature trees.
Ambiance is also a highlight, capturing a perfect, believable echo inside a cave. Some light animal calls during Stallone’s visit to his former home is noted, fine for immersion. Falling or drifting snow always seems to be evident. This is an outstanding mix.
Sony does nothing new for this release, sticking with a familiar set of bonus features that have been around since the early days of DVD. Two commentaries start us off, with director Renny Harlin and Sylvester Stallone on the first, while the special effects crew (Editor Frank J. Urioste, visual effects supervisors Neil Krepela and John Bruno, along with production designer John Vallone) take over on the second for detailed analysis on what was real and what was fake.
An intro to the disc from Harlin is really a brief making-of piece, along with the usual “thank you’s.” Three deleted scenes each feature introductions from Harlin on the specific cuts, and they run over eight minutes because of it. Stallone on the Edge is purely a promotional piece, with the actor discussing the film while on the set of Demolition Man. Two scenes selected for visual effects deconstruction include commentary from Harlin, and a great look at the miniature helicopter crash.
Storyboard comparisons, trailers, MovieIQ, and typical BD-Live support are left.