We decided to kick off the New Year with a mountain-climbing double-feature (ooh-ooh-ohh) of Sly Stallone's 1993 Rocky Mountains-based Cliffhanger and Chris O'Donnell's 2000 Himalayan adventure Vertical Limit. I thought it'd be interesting to compare and contrast the two because I knew the former was better than the latter and shared similarities.
Both open with thrilling and elaborate climbing accident scenes that scar our hero's psyches, making them swear off climbing until adversity strikes and the reluctant men have to get back on the rocks. Cliffhanger's McGuffin is bad guy John Lithgow's gang trying to recover three cases with $100 million that fell from the sky when their crazy mid-air great plane robbery goes awry. Vertical Limit has O'Donnell racing against time to save his sister who was trapped on K2 while accompanying billionaire weasel Bill Paxton on his Richard Bransonesque ego trip. Lots of snowy hijinks ensue.
Cliffhanger is clearly the better of the two movies because director Renny Harlin never lets the chase let up once the plot ball starts rolling. While there are respites after the major set pieces, there's no rest and while some of the feats of weather-resistance are credulity-straining, it works on its own terms. It's Harlin's best film, the only one I revisit consistently.
Martin Campbell, who directed GoldenEye and The Mask of Zorro before his trip to the mountains doesn't fare as well because his script makes frequent stops for lengthy "character development" breaks which slow the tempo. One wonders why they're lollygagging around when there's a rapidly closing window to rescue the trapped climbers before they succumb to pulmonary edema from the high altitude. Also, when the final rescue is made in a nick of time, they cut back to the base camp where she's recovering - oh, did I spoil the ending because you were in doubt whether she'd be saved? - leaving out the part where this on the edge of death woman was carried back down the mountain for at least 24 hours.
The largest difference is in the leading men - or perhaps I should say the difference between the man and boy. Stallone was 46 and in prison-ripped physical shape here, yet he takes a beating and delivers a good dramatic performance. It's very much in line with Bruce Willis' more Everyman approach in Die Hard, if John McClain had worn out a couple of BowFlexes, that is. On the other hand, O'Donnell is a bland vanilla area on the screen and fresh off assisting in the murder of the Batman franchise with Batman and His Lame Vanilla Buddy vs. Ahnuld, why someone thought he'd be a compelling action hero questions the intelligence of studio suits everywhere. Only Keanu Reeves would be more inert; at least O'Donnell can modulate his voice. I always remembered that I didn't care for Vertical Limit, referring to it as "Vertical Suckage," and the tag team of dodgy and predictable pacing and a vacant lead must've been it.
As for the discs themselves, Cliffhanger on DVD is a so-so effort from the early days of the format with a lot of edge-enhancement artifacts and a so-so flatness to the contrast. I've read the Blu-ray isn't a shining example of the format's potential, but it's much better. When I see a good sale, I'll be upgrading. Vertical Limit is a pretty good transfer which makes the cinematography of New Zealand's Mt. Cook (doubling for K2) even more spectacular while showing the callow affectless mien of O'Donnell accurately. Both have a OK batch of extras, but it's the features that count and Sly trumps Robin easily.
Cliffhanger Score: 9/10. Buy it on Blu-ray.
Vertical Limit Score: 6/10. Catch on cable.