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Cliffhanger is a 1993 action film directed by Renny Harlin and starring Sylvester Stallone and John Lithgow. Stallone plays a climber, who becomes embroiled in a failed heist set in a U.S. Treasury plane flying through the Rocky Mountains. The film was a huge hit, making more than $250 million worldwide.


In the opening scene, hotshot mountain climber and rescue worker Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) meets with his friends Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker) and Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner) on a narrow peak in the Rocky Mountains. While moving from one mountaintop to a helicopter via a steel cable, Hal's girlfriend Sarah's (Michelle Joyner) harness breaks and she is left dangling over a deep chasm. While the others frantically come up with a solution, Gabe straps himself in and goes out to save Sarah, but is unsuccessful and she falls to her death at the bottom of a mountain.

Eight months later, Gabe returns to town for the first time since Sarah's funeral. Overcome with guilt over having lost Sarah, Gabe has returned only to pack up his remaining possessions so he can leave permanently. However, a radio distress call comes in to the local rescue center where Hal and Jessie still work. Hal heads off to find the stranded climbers while Jessie pleads with Gabe to join Hal's rescue attempt. Battling his inner demons, Gabe meets Hal on the mountain, where the latter, still angry with Gabe for being unsuccessful at saving Sarah, lashes out and almost throws Gabe off the cliff.

The rescue turns out to be a fake; the two climbers are taken prisoner by ruthless thieves led by Eric Qualen (John Lithgow), who seeks to recover three suitcases containing $100 million in uncirculated US currency belonging to the United States Department of the Treasurymarker. With the aid of turncoat Treasury agent Richard Travers (Rex Linn), Qualen and his associates attempt to steal the suitcases via a daring air-to-air transfer, but the transfer is foiled and the three suitcases are lost among the mountains. The thieves' plane loses power during the attempt and crashes. The suitcases holding the money have beacon locators, but the thieves need expert help locating them in the mountainous terrain, thus prompting them to summon the unwitting Gabe and Hal to their aid.
The group locates the first of the three cases, and Gabe is tethered to a rope and ordered to scale a steep wall to retrieve it. Gabe frees himself from the rope, and the group begins firing up the cliff, causing an avalanche which kills one of Qualen's men. Seeing the money flutter down from the top of the cliff, Qualen presumes Gabe dead and orders the group to proceed to the second case.

Gabe survives the avalanche and makes his way to an abandoned cabin where he finds Jessie, who was airlifted into the area earlier. Together, they reach the second case only moments before Qualen and his mercenaries arrive. They find the case empty (except for a single $1,000 bill with the words "Want to Trade?" written on it) and split up to find Gabe. A fight ensues between Gabe and one of the thieves, resulting in the latter plummeting into the darkness. The thieves, with Hal still as their guide, make their way to the abandoned cabin for the night. Meanwhile, Gabe and Jessie hole up in a cave and stay warm by burning the money they found to stoke their fire.

The following morning, Gabe and Jessie attempt to beat the thieves to the remaining case. Qualen flags down and commandeers a rescue helicopter while Travers, Hal, and the last remaining mercenary track the case. Once within a reasonably close distance to the case, Travers leaves the mercenary to kill Hal, only to find that Gabe has beaten him to the case once again. Gabe kills Travers while Hal manages to dump the remaining mercenary, Delmar, off a cliff. Meanwhile, Jessie, who signaled the rescue helicopter thinking it to be a fellow rescue team member, is taken hostage by Qualen.

Communicating by radio, Qualen and Gabe make a deal to exchange Jessie for the money Gabe collected from the third case. Qualen releases Jessie, but Gabe throws the bag of money into the helicopter's rotors. In the following confusion, Qualen's helicopter falls precariously against the side of the mountain, suspended by a steel cable. Gabe and Qualen fight atop the dangling wreck. Gabe manages to jump off as the wreckage plummets several thousand feet, carrying Qualen with it. After which, Tucker quotes "If you're looking for Qualen, look about 4000 feet south of here. He'll be the one wearing a helicopter." The film ends as Gabe, Hal, and Jessie are found by federal agents and rescued.


Carolco had originally signed Sylvester Stallone to appear opposite John Candy in a comedy directed by John Hughes about feuding neighbors. When the project was dropped, Stallone was persuaded to appear in Cliffhanger.

Carolco had originally signed Renny Harlin to direct Gale Force, a “Die Hard-in-a-Hurricane” action movie. The special effects proved too difficult at the time, so he was persuaded to direct Cliffhanger.

Three writers claimed that Cliffhanger was their idea. To avoid jeopardizing the film's release, they were paid $250,000 each to drop the case.

The movie's most breathtaking scenes were shot in the Cortina d'Ampezzomarker area of the Dolomitesmarker, Italymarker. For example the bridge scene was shot on Monte Cristallomarker. Further filming took place in Durango, Coloradomarker. The credits of the film also thank the Ute Tribe for filming in the Ute Mountain reservation.

Cliffhanger is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the costliest aerial stunt ever performed. Stuntman Simon Crane was paid $1 million to perform the aerial transfer scene, where he crossed between two planes at an altitude of 4,572 m (15,000 ft).

The parachute that the basejumper opens, on his escape from the villains, features the design of the Finnish flag, Renny Harlin's native country (he features the Finnish flag in most of his movies).

The Denver Mintmarker featured in the film as the producer of the cash stolen by Qualen and his associates actually only produces coins. $100 million from the Denver Mint would weigh 2,500 tons. All paper currency in the US is printed by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, not the United States Mint.

The late Wolfgang Güllich, widely regarded as one of the most skillful, daring and popular rock-climbers of all time, performed as a climbing double of Stallone.

Reception and distribution

The film was screened in out of competition at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival.

The film was generally praised by critics, receiving a 78% on

However, despite the film's critical acclaim, it was nominated for Worst Picture, Worst Supporting Actor (John Lithgow), Worst Supporting Actress (Janine Turner) and Worst Screenplay in the 1993 Golden Raspberry Awards.

The film is generally disliked by rock climbers for its unrealistic portrayal of rock climbing. Most criticized is the feature of the bolt-gun which fires bolts directly into rock, forgoing the usual rock-drilling and bolt-hammering used in rock-climbing. Also, this ignores certain material properties of rock that should cause the bolt-gun's impact site to shatter and explode with flaky projectiles. The bolt gun is considered the most serious of the film's technical inaccuracies.

The film was originally rated NC-17 by the MPAA on account of its violence. Several cuts were made to almost every violent scene in the film in order to get an R rating. Several death scenes in the movie were shot in slow motion and lasted several seconds; for instance in the beginning of the film the pilot of the plane shoots the co-pilot in the head in a very brief shot; in the NC-17 version, this was shot from a different angle that showed blood splattering on the window. Bootleg DVD copies taken from a timecoded VHS workprint feature the original rough cut of the film, complete with uncut violent scenes. Travers' death originally featured him being shot in the shoulder by Walker with the bolt gun and blasted with the shotgun by Tucker. This was changed to Walker firing the gun three times, not due to censorship but because a review of the dailies caused the filmmakers to think of a somewhat slicker death.

For its British cinema release, the film was edited by one minute, then by a further twenty-five seconds on video and DVD. Chief victim was the scene where Delmar beats up Tucker, but other cuts included aggressive strong language and other moments of violence.

The scene where Hal's girlfriend, Sarah, falls to her death, was spoofed in the movies Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and Spy Hard.

This is the only TriStar-distributed Carolco production which the former studio has retained the American rights to (and therefore not owned in America by Carolco successor StudioCanal), and thus Sony Pictures remains responsible for American home video and television distribution.


Actor Role
Sylvester Stallone Gabe Walker
John Lithgow Eric Qualen
Michael Rooker Hal Tucker
Janine Turner Jessie Deighan
Rex Linn Treasury Agent Richard Travers
Caroline Goodall Kristel (Jetstar Pilot)
Leon Kynette
Craig Fairbrass Delmar
Gregory Scott Cummins Ryan
Denis Forest Heldon
Michelle Joyner Sarah Collins
Max Perlich Evan
Paul Winfield Walter Wright
Ralph Waite Frank
Trey Brownell Brett
Vyto Ruginis FBI Agent Mathesen
John Finn Agent Michaels


In May 2009 it was announced that StudioCanal would be overseeing a remake of Cliffhanger. Neal H. Moritz is set to produce, with filming scheduled to begin in 2010.

See also


External links

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