The lessons we’ve learned from Renny Harlin’s Cliffhanger

How do we deal with an avalanche? What shorts do we wear while mountain climbing? 90s action flick Cliffhanger has the answers to these questions and more...

Renny Harlin’s 1993 action masterpiece Cliffhanger is quite a remarkable film, and unexpectedly educational. Stallone plays Gabe Walker, a mountain rescue chap, whose relationship with his colleague and friend Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker) is strained when he fails to save their mutual friend Sarah (Michelle Joyner) from falling to her death.

The pair are later reunited when they team up to help some climbers trapped on the same mountain range. It soon transpires that all is not as it seems, and the pair are being used to help retrieve $100m for the dastardly Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) and his gang.

Not only does Cliffhanger provide almost two hours of tight shorts, mountains, Stallone, Michael Rooker and John Lithgow revelling in his role as the villain, but it also features some important lessons. Here’s what we learned on a recent re-watch of the film.

A beginner’s guide to bereavement counselling

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The establishing scene of Gabe failing to hold on to Tucker’s girlfriend Sarah shows how their friendship ended, and what prompted Gabe to go into retirement.

Needless to say, this was a traumatic for both of them, so when they meet up again after eight months, it’s still a sore subject. As Tucker airs his grievances regarding what he perceives to be carelessness on Gabe’s part, Gabe attempts to calm things down by saying, “It was a bad time for everybody.”

Now, imagine you lost a loved one, and this was someone’s response. I appreciate that Michael Rooker is a big man, but it wouldn’t go down too well, would it? It would appear that Gabe skipped the course on how to comfort someone following such an event.

How not to deal with an avalanche        

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In one early encounter, Qualen decides that having two mountain rescue chaps isn’t necessary, so when he sends Gabe to retrieve a case, he fully intends to kill him once said case is in his possession, and orders one of his crew to kill him.

However, Qualen is far from discreet when discussing this. Tucker overhears, and alerts his colleague of their captors’ intentions. Gabe frees himself on the rope he is tied to, and one of the bad people proceeds to shoot in his general direction, immediately causing an avalanche.

Now, I’m not saying that a gunshot wouldn’t cause an avalanche, but the behaviour of the shooting man once the snow begins to fall is bizarre to say the least. Rather than try to take cover and increase his chances of survival, he appears to try to stop the avalanche by shooting it.

Yes, shooting it.

Needless to say, bullets can’t stop an avalanche, so he’s soon swept off the mountain and flung to his death. So readers, if for some reason you find yourself in a similar situation, remember: bullets are useless against a descending wall of snow.

Sylvester Stallone hates money

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Okay, so Sly might not hate money, but the character he portrays here certainly does. Rather than hiding the contents of the cases and returning the cash back to the US Treasury, Gabe decides that disposing of $100m in creative ways is a much better idea.

He allows the contents of one case to fall off a mountain (it could be argued that he had little opportunity to prevent this, though), he burns the contents of another (it’s cold, granted, but surely there’s a cheaper way to keep warm) and for the third lot, he decides to chuck it into the rotating blades of a helicopter, using it as an extravagant shredder.

It’s never really addressed what punishment he would face for destroying $100m of government money. Presumably, it was a price worth paying to bring down Qualen. I’m sure if a sequel were green lit this would be addressed.

Helicopter Safety

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I recently had the opportunity to have a helicopter flying lesson, which was great, as it what something I always wanted to do after growing up with action films such as this, where the presence of a chopper seems essential. It also means I’m one step closer to being prepared for the zombie apocalypse.

Cliffhanger contains plenty of chopper action, aside from the aforementioned extravagant shredder scene, but the most important lessons about the safety of helicopters come late in the film.

It would appear that if a helicopter spins out of control and collides with the side of a mountain, a flimsy rope ladder will be able to support the weight of it, allowing two grown men to have a bit of a fight while suspended in mid-air. This is useful information to know.

When the hero is safe, however, the helicopter will fall a short distance and explode. This is worth bearing in mind for all would-be chopper pilots out there – keep a rope ladder with you at all times in case of emergencies.

For legal reasons, though, I’d like to point out that the events depicted in this film might not be entirely true to life.

Cliffhanger is actually really funny

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I didn’t appreciate this when I saw the film as a youngster, but re-watching it recently, I was amazed by just how funny the film was. Cynics may argue that the humour isn’t intentional, but there’s no way this amount of bad dialogue would have made it into the finished script without those involved wanting to give audiences a bit of a chuckle.

Obviously, a number of the above plot points provoked laughter, as do the ridiculously skimpy shorts Stallone wears in the opening scene, but the main source of comedy is found in the dialogue. Here are some particularly special examples from exchanges between the protagonists and antagonists:

Qualen: I must say, you’re a real piece of work.

Gabe: I must say, you’re a real piece of shit.

Qualen: You want to kill me, don’t you, Tucker? Well, get a number and get in line.

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Hal Tucker: Delmar, from me to you, you’re an asshole.

Delmar: Yeah? And you’re a loud-mouth punk slag who’s about to die.

Hal Tucker: Maybe. But in a minute I’ll be dead, and you, will always be an asshole.

I have to say, I’ve never once heard someone be referred to as a “loud-mouth punk slag”, but I like it a lot.

John Lithgow should be in more films

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This should be obvious to anybody, particularly after a great turn in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes this year, as well as his run in Dexter. Still, Lithgow is an actor who doesn’t get the quality projects someone of his talent deserves (just look what he could with something like Raising Cain), despite some truly great performances over the years.

Here he relishes his villainous role, hamming it up wonderfully and adding class to some quite ridiculous dialogue. There’s an effortless mania and unpredictability to Qualen, which makes him more than a match for the physical superiority of the man he’s up against. Someone needs to cast him as the antagonist in an action movie again soon.

Cliffhanger? False advertising!

Sure, there’s a fair bit of climbing and hanging action in the film, but Cliffhanger rather disappointingly, doesn’t actually end on a cliffhanger. In fact, it has a rather tidy conclusion, with Gabe, Tucker and Jessie being rescued by federal agents.

As The Simpsons’ Lionel Hutz once said, “This is the most blatant case of fraudulent advertising since The Never Ending Story.

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