Cliffhanger (film)

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Cliffhanger Poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Renny Harlin
Produced by Alan Marshall
Renny Harlin
Executive Producer:
Mario Kassar
Screenplay by Michael France
Sylvester Stallone
Story by John Long (premise)
Michael France
Starring Sylvester Stallone
John Lithgow
Michael Rooker
Janine Turner
Paul Winfield
Ralph Waite
Music by Trevor Jones
Cinematography Alex Thomson
Edited by Frank J. Urioste
Distributed by TriStar Pictures
Release dates
  • May 28, 1993 (1993-05-28)
Running time
113 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $65 million
Box office $255,325,036

Cliffhanger is a 1993 American action adventure film directed by Renny Harlin and starring Sylvester Stallone and John Lithgow. Stallone, who co-wrote the screenplay, plays a mountain climber who becomes embroiled in a failed heist set in a U.S. Treasury plane flying through the Rocky Mountains. The film was a critical and box office success, earning more than $250 million worldwide.


In the opening scene, hotshot mountain climber and rescue ranger Gabriel "Gabe" Walker (Sylvester Stallone) and fellow ranger Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner) are dispatched to pick up their friend Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker) on a narrow peak in the Rocky Mountains called "The Tower", where he was stranded after a knee injury. While moving from one mountaintop to a helicopter via a steel cable, the harness of Hal's girlfriend Sarah (Michelle Joyner) breaks and she is left dangling over a deep chasm. While the others try frantically to come up with a solution, Gabe straps himself in and goes out to save Sarah, but is unsuccessful; her gloved hand slips through Gabe's and she falls to her death.

Eight months later, Gabe returns for the first time since Sarah's funeral. Overcome with guilt, Gabe has come to pack his remaining possessions and convince Jessie to come with him. However, a radio distress call comes to the rescue center where Hal and Jessie still work. Hal heads off to find the stranded climbers while Jessie pleads with Gabe to help. Battling his inner demons, Gabe decides to do it. Hal, still angry with Gabe for failing to save Sarah, lashes out and almost throws Gabe off a ledge.

The distress call turns out to be a fake; the two climbers are taken prisoner by a group of ruthless thieves led by former Military Intelligence member Eric Qualen (John Lithgow), who seeks to recover three suitcases containing $100 million in uncirculated $1,000 bills belonging to the U.S. Treasury Department. With the aid of turncoat U.S. Treasury agent Richard Travers (Rex Linn), Qualen and his mercenaries steal the suitcases via a daring air-to-air transfer, but the transfer is foiled by an undercover FBI agent and the three cases drop into the mountains. The thieves' plane loses power and crashes. The cases have beacon locators, but the thieves need expert help locating them, prompting them to summon the unwitting Gabe and Hal.

When the first case is found, Gabe is tethered to a rope and ordered to scale a steep wall to retrieve it. Gabe frees himself and the thieves fire their weapons, causing an avalanche which kills one of Qualen's men, Heldon (Denis Forest). Seeing the money flutter down, Qualen presumes Gabe dead and orders the group to proceed to the second case.

Gabe 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 do. The case is empty (except for a single $1,000 bill with the words "Want to Trade?" written on it) and Qualen's thieves split up to find Gabe. One of them, Ryan (Gregory Scott Cummins), is killed when he falls into a chasm as Gabe hangs onto a cliff.

The thieves run into two of Hal's friends, Evan (Max Perlich) and Brett (Trey Brownell). Hal tells them to run, but Brett is shot dead by Qualen's mercenary Kynette (Leon Robinson). Evan parachutes off a cliff, but his chute is caught on a tree branch. Gabe is spotted by Kynette and a fight ensues in a cave, resulting in Kynette being impaled on a stalactite. Gabe tries to pick up the thief's radio to call the rescue helicopter, but Hal alerts Gabe that Qualen is planting explosives directly above him. Gabe and Jessie barely escape.

The thieves stay in the abandoned cabin for the night. Gabe and Jessie hole up in a cave and stay warm by burning the money they found. The helicopter pilot, Frank (Ralph Waite), having not received a radio response, flies over the mountain, finds Evan stuck in the tree, cuts him down, transports him to safety, and alerts the authorities.

The following morning, Gabe and Jessie beat the thieves to the remaining case. Kristel (Caroline Goodall) flags down the helicopter, and against Qualen's orders, the mercenary Delmar (Craig Fairbrass) shoots Frank. Just before dying, Frank slips Hal a knife. Travers pulls a gun on Qualen, telling everyone that he is now in charge of the operation. Qualen states that without someone to pilot the helicopter, nobody will even be able to get off the mountain. He then shoots Kristel, the only other mercenary with piloting experience. Qualen tells Travers, Hal, and Delmar to track the final case.

Travers finds that Gabe has beaten him to the case once again. Delmar viciously beats Hal and nearly kicks him off a cliff, but Hal stabs Delmar, then shoots him with his own shotgun. Jessie, signaling the rescue helicopter thinking it to be Frank, is taken hostage by Qualen. Travers fires at Gabe and pursues him, causing Gabe to fall into the frozen river. Under the ice, Gabe shoots the corrupt Treasury agent with his bolt gun. Travers' body is carried away by the river.

Communicating by radio, Qualen offers to exchange Jessie for the money Gabe collected from the third case. Qualen releases her, but Gabe throws the bag of money into the helicopter's rotors. In the 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 falls and explodes, killing Qualen. In another helicopter, federal agents arrive and find Gabe, Hal, and Jessie, offering them a ride.


  • Sylvester Stallone as Gabriel "Gabe" Walker, a former mountain climber and rescue ranger haunted by his failure to save the girlfriend of his best friend, Hal Tucker
  • John Lithgow as Eric Qualen, a sadistic former military intelligence officer, now leader of the gang of thieves trying to rob $100 million from the U.S. Treasury
  • Michael Rooker as Hal Tucker, Gabe's best friend and a mountain ranger who blames Gabe for failing to save Sarah
  • Janine Turner as Jessie Deighan, Gabe's girlfriend who works in the same mountain search-and-rescue group, and whom Gabe has become distant from since failing to save Sarah
  • Rex Linn as Richard Travers, a U.S. Treasury agent who is a double agent working with Qualen
  • Caroline Goodall as Kristel, Qualen's pilot and companion
  • Leon Robinson as Kynette, Qualen's brutal main henchman
  • Craig Fairbrass as Delmar, Qualen's sadistic ex-soccer player-turned-henchman.
  • Gregory Scott Cummins as Ryan, Qualen's henchman
  • Denis Forest as Heldon, Qualen's henchman
  • Michelle Joyner as Sarah, Hal's ill-fated girlfriend who falls to her death after Gabe failed to save her
  • Paul Winfield as Walter Wright, A U.S. Treasury agent who discovered Qualen's plot to rob the money from the U.S. Treasury
  • Ralph Waite as Frank, a search-and-rescue pilot working for Gabe, Jessie and Hal
  • Max Perlich as Evan, a thrill-seeking young man who is friends with Gabe and Hal
  • Trey Brownell as Brett, Evan's friend who is also a thrill-seeker
  • Vyto Ruginis as Matheson, an undercover FBI agent who foils the mid-air robbery
  • John Finn as Agent Michaels
  • Bruce McGill as Treasury Agent
  • Jeff McCarthy as Pilot
  • Wolfgang Güllich as Gabe Walker (stunt double)


Carolco Pictures 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.[1]

Half of the film's budget was provided by TriStar Pictures in exchange for complete distribution rights in North America, Japan (television), Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and France.[2] Other funding was provided by Rizzoli-Corriere della Sera, Le Studio Canal+, and Pioneer Electric Corporation. The financing arrangement was the result of Carolco's serious debt issues, and as a result, the studio would ultimately receive very little of the box office gross.[3]

Carolco had also originally signed Renny Harlin to direct Gale Force, a "Die Hard-in-a-hurricane" action film. 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 large majority of the film's scenes were shot in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Dolomites, Italy. For example, the bridge scene was shot on Monte Cristallo in the via ferrata VF Ivano Dibona, which was reconstructed immediately after the movie. The climbing was mostly on the Tofane cliffs, and in some scenes toward the end of the movie the audience clearly sees the three Tofane, the Croda da Lago, the village of Cortina; the location of this is on top of mount Faloria, at the arrival of the funivia Faloria. In other scenes viewers may recognize the sentiero ferrato Astaldi, over the Rifugio Dibona. The small house has been constructed on the sand of the river Boite, in Fiames, close to the heliport. Little filming took place in Durango, Colorado. The credits of the film also thank the Ute Tribe for filming in the Ute Mountain reservation.[4]

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 15,000 feet (4,600 m).

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 a reference to Finland in most of his films).

The Denver Mint 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 kilograms (5,500 lb). All paper currency in the US is printed by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, not the United States Mint.

The principal climbing doubles were Ron Kauk and Wolfgang Güllich. The latter performed as Stallone's climbing double before he died in a car accident in 1992.[5]


Cliffhanger (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Cliffhanger soundtrack cover.jpg
Studio album by Trevor Jones
Released 23 May 1993
Recorded Music performed at CTS Studios London
Genre Stage & Screen
Label Scotti Bros. Records 514 455-2
Producer Trevor Jones
Trevor Jones chronology
The Last of the Mohicans
Death Train

The critically acclaimed orchestral score to Cliffhanger was composed by film score veteran Trevor Jones. In his review for the Cliffhanger soundtrack, reviewer Christian Clemmensen noted its similarities to Jones's previous work on The Last of the Mohicans, stating: "with Cliffhanger would come a title theme strikingly similar to that of Last of the Mohicans, possibly too reminiscent in fact for some listeners to tolerate." However, his review was still positive, giving the Cliffhanger score four out of a possible five stars concluding, "No matter your view of whether or not composers should recycle their own material, Jones' main identity for Cliffhanger stands on its own as a remarkable piece, and an often enjoyable action underscore will maintain your interest in between the theme's statements."[6] The soundtrack has been released twice; through Scotti Bros./BMG Music on 23 May 1993 and an extended version through Intrada Records on 21 February 2011.[6]

Scotti Bros. release
  1. Cliffhanger Theme (3:52)
  2. Sarah's Farewell (2:14)
  3. Sarah Falls (3:53)
  4. Gabe Returns (3:11)
  5. I Understand (1:40)
  6. Sunset Searching (1:19)
  7. Tolerated Help (2:55)
  8. Base Jump (4:10)
  9. Bats (2:25)
  10. Two Man Job (2:08)
  11. Kynette Is Impaled (4:00)
  12. Fireside Chat (0:33)
  13. Frank's Demise (2:37)
  14. Rabbit Hole (1:33)
  15. Icy Stream (1:39)
  16. Jessie's Release (3:42)
  17. Helicopter Fight (1:30)
  18. End Credits (7:23)
Intrada release, with unreleased tracks in bold

Disc 1:

  1. Cliffhanger Theme (3:52)
  2. Setting Cable ("Sarah's Farewell" on the Scotti Bros. album) (2:14)
  3. Sarah Slips ("Sarah Falls") (4:03)
  4. Driving Invitation ("Gabe Returns") (3:12)
  5. I Understand (1:40)
  6. Being Tracked/Matheson Revives (6:51)
  7. Plane Crash (1:50)
  8. Two Man Job (2:09)
  9. Tolerated Help (2:57)
  10. Fetch/Expensive Funeral (6:04)
  11. Hal Leads (1:24)
  12. Ice Castle/Sunset Searching (2:03)
  13. Night Searching/Face Flare (4:18)

Disc 2:

  1. Qualen In Hut/Fireside Chat (1:14)
  2. Brett's Death/Evan's Dive ("Base Jump") (4:07)
  3. Bats (2:24)
  4. Wolves Away (1:57)
  5. Footbridge (:40)
  6. Gabe's Caught (1:27)
  7. Kynette's Impaled ("Kynette Is Impaled") (4:02)
  8. Qualen's Timebomb/Jessie's Close Call (4:03)
  9. Frank's Demise (2:36)
  10. Blown Bridge/Krystel's Sacrifice (3:02)
  11. Rabbit Hole (1:34)
  12. Delmar Falls (2:27)
  13. Rabbit Surprise (2:58)
  14. Icy Stream/Jessie's Release/Hooked Copter/Copter Fight (9:35)
  15. Cliffhanger (End Credits) (7:23)


Stallone later said "the director’s cut was met with a lot of disapproval at the screening and received some alarmingly low scores. Mainly because the stunts were absurdly overblown. For example, the average man can jump maybe twelve feet across a gorge, and the stunts had me leaping maybe three hundred feet or more, so situations like that had to be pared down and still then were fairly extreme… so you’re probably better off with this cut. By the way, the 2nd unit crew that filmed the majority of the action was extraordinary."[7]

The film was screened in out of competition at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival.[8] The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, Best Sound (Michael Minkler, Bob Beemer and Tim Cooney), Best Sound Effects Editing (Gregg Baxter) and Best Visual Effects all losing to Jurassic Park.[9]

The film was generally praised by critics, receiving a 69% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 49 reviews.[10][11] Although the movie was a box-office success, 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.[12][13] Although most people enjoyed Lithgow's performance, he was criticized for his inauthentic-sounding English accent, especially when next to native English-thespians Fairbrass and Goodall.

The film has been criticised for its unrealistic portrayal of rock climbing. One example 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. 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. Further examples are showing athletic moves, which have no use in real climbing, or free soloing with – then also completely useless – gear.[14][15]

Sneak-preview audiences saw a scene where a rabbit is killed by gunfire. Their reaction was strong enough for Sylvester Stallone to invest $100,000 of his own money to have the scene re-shot so that the rabbit escaped.[citation needed]


The film was originally rated NC-17 by the MPAA on account of its violence.[citation needed] Several cuts were made to almost every violent scene in the film in order to get an R rating.[citation needed] Several death scenes in the film 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 Gabe with the bolt gun and blasted with the shotgun by Hal. This was changed to Gabe 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.[citation needed]

The movie was a box office hit.[16] For its British cinema release, the film was cut by over a minute, then by a further 16 seconds on video and DVD to gain a '15' certificate. Chief victim was the scene where Delmar beats up Tucker, but other cuts included aggressive strong language and other moments of violence. However, the 2008 DVD release was passed '15' with no cuts made.[17]

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

This is the only TriStar-distributed Carolco production which the former (through Sony Pictures) has retained all worldwide television and video rights instead of StudioCanal (current owner of the Carolco film library). This was due to Carolco being strapped for cash during the films production and ended up selling all distribution rights to TriStar Pictures (who was the co-distributor for most Carolco productions at the time).


In May 2009, it was announced that StudioCanal would be overseeing a remake of Cliffhanger. Neal H. Moritz was set to produce, with filming due to begin in 2010.[18] In May 2014, Joe Gazzam was set to write the script for the film.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brennan, Judy (1995-12-21). "Troubled Route to Pirate Epic 'Cutthroat'; Movies: As the swashbuckling adventure starring Geena Davis, directed by her husband, Renny Harlin, opens this weekend, financial woes surround its release.". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-10-27. 
  2. ^ Prince, Stephen (2000) A New Pot of Gold: Hollywood Under the Electronic Rainbow, 1980-1989 (p. 148). University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles, California. ISBN 0-520-23266-6
  3. ^ Bates, James (August 30, 1994). "COMPANY TOWN : SEC Filings Show Carolco Has Little to Sing About : Movies: The company expects to lose money this year and next, despite a major financial reorganization negotiated last year.". Los Angeles Times. 
  4. ^ Stall, Bill (1993-06-02). "Making a Movie Out of a Mountain : Climbers Give High Marks to 'Cliffhanger's' Realistic High-Altitude Action Sequences". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-11-08. 
  5. ^ Stall, Bill (June 2, 1993). "Making a Movie Out of a Mountain : Climbers Give High Marks to 'Cliffhanger's' Realistic High-Altitude Action Sequences". Los Angeles Times. 
  6. ^ a b Clemmensen, Christian. Cliffhanger soundtrack review. Retrieved 2011-05-23.
  7. ^ [1]
  8. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Cliffhanger". Retrieved August 24, 2009. 
  9. ^ "The 66th Academy Awards (1994) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-22. 
  10. ^ "Cliffhanger". Washington Post. 1993-05-28. Retrieved 2010-10-02. 
  11. ^ "Cliffhanger (1993)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved July 1, 2010. 
  12. ^ "Rocky's Mountains". Chicago Tribune. May 28, 1993. Retrieved 2010-09-10. 
  13. ^ "Cliffhanger". Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved 2010-09-10. 
  14. ^ "Rock Climbing Media Reviews: Books, Movies, and more". Retrieved 2012-03-04. 
  15. ^ "Stallone Stumbles As Climber 'Cliffhanger' Is About The Outdoors. At Least, That Was The Intent. -". 1994-01-09. Retrieved 2012-03-04. 
  16. ^ Fox, David J. (1993-06-01). "`Cliffhanger' grabs the largest opening for a non-sequel on any Memorial Day weekend. `Made in America' opens in second place.". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-10-27. 
  17. ^ "CLIFFHANGER rated 15 by the BBFC". 2008-06-03. Retrieved 2012-03-04. 
  18. ^ "StudioCanal remounts 'Cliff' - Entertainment News, Cannes News, Media". Variety. May 13, 2009. Retrieved May 14, 2009. 
  19. ^ "Climb Toward ‘Cliffhanger’ Reboot Moving Forward; Joe Gazzam Set To Write". Retrieved 30 May 2014. 

External links[edit]