Film / Cliffhanger

Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) was just your friendly everyday mountain rescue worker, happily flying to the rescue in the Rockies with his helicopter-pilot girlfriend Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner, from Northern Exposure), until his best friend Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker) took his completely untrained girlfriend to climb to the summit of a cliff. Of course, this led to her horrifying death hundreds of feet below when the rescue equipment failed to function properly.note  In spite of Gabe's valiant efforts, Tucker blamed him for the tragedy. Gabe, being the good-hearted musclehead that he is, took the blame to heart and left the mountains in guilt and grief.

18 months later, Gabe came back to pick up his things from Jessie, just in time to be the only climber qualified enough to reach a band of plane crash survivors trapped in the mountains by a snowstorm. Partnering himself with Tucker, who still hated him, the duo reached the plane...

...only to find the distress signal to be a ruse of Eric Qualen (John Lithgow), a maniacal terrorist leader leading a Card-Carrying Villain band of Psycho for Hire mercenaries (which includes a pre-Modern Warfare Craig Fairbrass) who have just lost $100 million worth of Federal Bearer Bonds they hijacked during the crash. Gabe and Tucker are captured and forced to help the terrorists get their ill-gotten money...

This film provides examples of:

  • Amazon Chaser: The only member of his team Qualen actually admires is The Squadette, Kristel, who's notably smarter than the rest of his mooks (when making the fake distress call, she claims that one of their party is running out of insulin so the rescue team won't wait till after the storm). Subverted later in a Kick the Dog and You Have Outlived Your Usefulness moment when Qualen shoots her dead solely to force the hand of Travers, who's trying to become The Starscream.
    Qualen (watching her plant an explosive booby trap): You'll make a good wife for someone one day.
    Kristel: You should see me bake a cake.
  • Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: Kynette, especially during his No-Holds-Barred Beatdown inflicted on Gabe, when he drags out his fight just for his own gratification.
  • The Atoner: Gabe Walker
  • Ax-Crazy: Qualen, Kynette, Delmar and eventually Travers when he undergoes his Villainous Breakdown.
  • Badass: Matheson, Walker and even Tucker.
    • For the villains, Kynette (who's an expert at martial arts and acts intimidatingly fierce as a Scary Black Man and cool at the same time) and Delmar (who uniquely uses his soccer talents to torture his hostage and taunts the said hostage with sports-related wisecracks), the Love to Hate performances by their actors Leon Robinson and Craig "Ghost" Fairbrass certainly helps.
  • Badass Bystander: Matheson, one of the few red shirts in movie history to more or less nearly take out the villains all by himself.
  • Bad Boss: One of the mooks is injured during the mid-air robbery.
    Kynette: What do we do with him?
    Qualen: Send him to the nearest hospital. Fast. (throws mook out of the airplane)
  • Big Bad: Quelen.
  • Big Bad Wannabe: Travers, especially when he attempts to pull The Starscream after being the No Respect Guy in the eyes of his accomplices.
  • Big "NO!": Sarah, as she's falling to her death in the beginning of the film.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Travers at the beginning of the film initially appears to be an honest Reasonable Authority Figure, however, when Travers reveals his true colors as The Mole, not only is he a mole, he's anything but reasonable and a mentally unstable and disgruntled Jerkass.
  • Black and White Morality: Like most action movies from the 1980s and 1990s, there is very little moral ambiguity in this film. Eric Quelen and his gang are a bunch of unrepentant murdering psychopaths. While the good guys, on the other hand, are Rocky Mountain Search and Rescue volunteers.
  • Blood Knight: Kynette seems to be this, but at least he mantains some discipline. Delmar on the other hand is totally sadist and murderous and he seems to take part in Qualen's operations just for the fun of hurting and / or killing people than for the money.
  • Bond One-Liner: "Remember shithead! Keep your arms and legs in the vehicle At. All. Times!"
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: Especially in the fight scenes.
  • Brief Accent Imitation: Krystel affects a very convincing American accent during a fake distress radio call.
  • Butt Monkey: Tucker.
  • California Doubling: Set in Colorado, filmed in the Italian Alps.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: As stated by Quelen:
    "Kill a few people, they call you a murderer. Kill a million and you're a conqueror. Go figure."
  • Chekhov's Gun: Tucker quickly pockets Frank's knife while nobody is looking. It comes in very handy later.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: For all his tactical expertise, Qualen sure is a lousy judge of character to form a band of henchmen that are so sociopathic and mean-spiritedly selfish for each themselves that they do not even like each other, much less trust and cooperate with each other.
  • Climb, Slip, Hang, Climb: Implied by this poster.
  • Cool Old Guy: Frank.
  • Decoy Deuteragonist: Kind-hearted Cool Old Guy Frank, who spends a good bulk of the movie trying to find Walker, Tucker and Jessie, only when finally facing the villains and finding Tucker, instead of simply being taken hostage, he gets mowed down (by the guy who later be Ghost!) and is quickly forgotten in the picture, while Qualen steals his helicopter.
  • Defensive Feint Trap: When Kynette heads further into the cave to hunt Gabe down, he shouts a taunt to let the mercenary know where he's at. Once Kynette catches up with Gabe (who is pretending to be more injured than he already is), Jessie kicks Kynette in the face from her previously concealed position further up the rock wall. Unfortunately, this only knocks Kynette down for a second...
  • Diabolical Mastermind: Eric Qualen.
  • "Die Hard" on an X: Die Hard on a mountain. Unsurprisingly, the director Renny Harlin directed Die Hard 2 as well.
  • Disney Villain Death: Ryan.
  • Dropped Bullets on Him: Frank.
  • Empathy Doll Shot: As a teddy-bear falls out of a backpack into the cliff below in the film's chilling opening.
  • The Everyman: Gabe and Tucker.
  • Evil Brit: Eric Qualen, Kristel and Delmar.
  • Evil Is Hammy: Qualen, Kynette, Delmar and Travers, especially as Up to Eleven Jerkasses, see also Large Ham below.
  • "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner
    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.
  • Five-Bad Band
  • Flag Drop: When the surviving thrill-seeker parachutes off the cliff to escape Qualen's mooks, his 'chute resembles the flag of Finland. Director Renny Harlin is Finnish, you see.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Delmar, as he says, used to be a soccer player before becoming an homicidal insane mercenary.
  • Groin Attack: There is one muscle that not even a martial-arts-terrorist can strengthen, as Kynette finds out the hard way in his confrontation with Walker.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Some of the villains are prone to fits of rage, particularly Travers, Delmar and Kynette.
  • Hate Sink: The terrorists' Up to Eleven-wise unlikable actions and attitudes tends fall into this.
  • Heel Realization: Tucker when he finds himself faced with a similar choice to that of the opening.
  • Hellish Copter: Gabe takes down Qualen's chopper by securing it to a cliffside ladder, keeping Qualen tethered and unable to escape.
  • Hero of Another Story: Matheson would have been The Hero in another film.
  • Honor Before Reason
  • I Know Madden Kombat: Delmar uses his soccer skills to kick the crap out of Hal.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Kynette's end at the point of a stalactite - right after suffering a well deserved Groin Attack.
  • Inside Job: The bad guys rob a US government plane transporting $100 million in uncirculated $1,000 bills while it is flying over the Rockies. This daring and extremely dangerous heist is only possible because one of the federal agents guarding the money is actually working for the bad guys and kills the other guards.
  • Jerkass: The terrorists themselves, with Qualen, Travers, Kynette and Delmar being the biggest Jerkasses out of the group, while Kristel, Ryan and Heldon, despite having little screen time and characterization, also show some shades of this. Plus, what also make them all count is that throughout the film, they fight amongst themselves and hurl insults at one another, which is also why Qualen counts as a Bad Boss.
  • Jerkass Realization: See Heel Realization above.
  • Jerk Jock: Delmar, who proclaims himself as an ex-soccer player, while torturing Tucker and acting sadistically Badass.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Tucker, as he blames Walker for Sarah's death, but it is likely out of grief as Tucker loved Sarah. Also, even when he is held hostage along with Walker by Qualen and his team, Tucker encourages Walker to escape their wrath and continue to make sure Walker makes through the ordeal alive.
  • Knight of Cerebus: Things get dark when Qualen and his posse show up. Compared to villains in a lot of other "Die Hard" on an X, who often try to at least be Faux Affably Evil to The Hero, these guys make no secret that they're a bunch of sadistic psychopathic Jerkasses who all happily swim around the Hate Sink. The movie was originally rated NC-17 thanks to their antics, before Executive Meddling forced some of the more out-there moments to be toned down a bit.
  • Large Ham: "You want to kill me, Tucker? Well take a number and get in line!"
    • Also, "DAMN YOU WALKER!!"
    • "Time to kill a mountain man!"
    • "Partners in criiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime!"
  • Literal Cliffhanger: Several.
  • Made of Iron: Gabe AND Tucker.
  • Man Bites Man: Gabe takes a chunk out of Qualen's arm in their final battle.
  • Manly Tears: Cried by Gabe when he fails to save Tucker's girlfriend.
  • Mauve Shirt: Agent Matheson.
  • Mean Brit: Delmar.
  • Mean Character, Nice Actor:
    • You may also know Eric Qualen as John Lithgow, an adorable sweetheart of an old gentleman who reads stories to children with terminal illnesses and starred as the childish yet kind Dick Solomon in 3rd Rock from the Sun.
    • Also, despite the Mean Brit Sadist nature of Delmar, his actor Craig Fairbrass is said in real life to be very kind and incredibly personable, especially in interviews for upcoming projects.
    • Same thing can be said for the rest of the actors playing the villains.
  • The Mole: Agent Travers.
  • Money to Burn: At one point Gabe burns some of the money to keep Jessie and himself warm.
  • My Greatest Failure: Gabe failing to save Sarah.
  • Never My Fault: Oh sure, Hal, it was Gabe's fault you brought your girlfriend, who had no experience in climbing whatsoever, on a climbing trip. Or never bothered to check her harness, and assured her it was safe to go across a cliff. Oh, but I'm sure you could've saved her when the harness failed when she was halfway across with little to no chance of reaching her or being able to pull her up. But hey, Gabe at least bothering to try was certainly something to blame him for. Yeah, great reasoning there, Hal.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: While Gabe is retrieving the first briefcase, Qualen remarks that they don't need two guides and instructs his crew to kill Gabe when he comes down. He says this while standing next to Hal, so Hal naturally yells to Gabe not to come back down, allowing Gabe to flee and become the fly-in-the-ointment to Qualen and crew. Had Qualen kept his mouth shut until Gabe came down, or instructed his men out of earshot, he would've saved himself a lot of trouble.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Kynette's brutal beating of Walker and Delmar's "soccer-torture" of Tucker.
  • Noisy Guns: The bad guys' weapons make cocking noises every time they're pointed at someone.
  • Novelization: By Jeff Rovin.
  • Oh Crap!: The crooked treasury jet pilot when he realizes Matheson isn't dead yet. And has a machine gun.
    • The look on Kynette's face when, after dominating his fight with Walker, he goes too far by boasting about all the horrible things he'll do to Walker's girlfriend, at which point Walker grabs Kynette by his crotch, hefts him up over his head and then Kynette sees that he's about to be impaled on a stalactite.
    • The look on Delmar's face when, after sadistically beating Hal to a pulp and almost sending him falling to his death, Hal stabs him in the leg, shattering his manly self-image, and then realizes that Hal is about to shoot him with his own gun.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Brett and Evan.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Delmar describes Kynette as a "black bastard."
  • Plummet Perspective: Used to horrifying effect in the opening with a falling teddy bear.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: Delmar fights Tucker and announces it like a soccer game; finally, the beaten Tucker is dangling from a cliff with Delmar's shotgun in his face. Tucker manages to stab the sadistic Englishman in the ankle with Frank's dagger, grab his shotgun while he's distracted by the pain and...
    Hal Tucker: "SEASON'S OVER, ASSHOLE!" (pulls the trigger and blows a hole through Delmar)
  • Psycho for Hire: All of Qualen's men probably qualify, but Kynette and Delmar are the straightest examples. They're the most openly psychotic and sadistic and both enjoy dragging out their fights just for their own gratification.
    • Travers himself literally becomes this near the end of film, when he undergoes his Sanity Slippage and Villainous Breakdown with Qualen calling him out for losing his mind.
    • Ironically, Qualen himself is crazy too despite being the employer. One of the FBI agents in-universe even calls him psychotic, while Travers calls him crazy when referring to Qualen's killing of Kristel.
  • Rated M for Manly: Let's see, terrorists, gunfights, explosions, and rock climbing? It's a manly movie that flies under the radar.
  • Retirony: Poor Frank, an elderly-artist who would not hurt a fly...
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Brett.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Matheson and Frank
  • Sanity Slippage: Travers undergoes this when he succumbs to his Villainous Breakdown, with Qualen lampshading on it when speaking to him one last time.
  • Savage Wolves: After one of the basejumpers crash down on the woods, bunch of wolves appear to check him out. Luckily Frank arrives and chases them away.
  • Scary Black Man: Kynette, child-murderer and karate expert.
  • Scenery Porn
  • Short-Lived Aerial Escape: Trope Maker
  • Smug Snake: The terrorists.
  • The Sociopath: The terrorists, especially Qualen, Travers, Delmar and Kynette, which the latter three are Ax-Crazy Jerkass textbook examples. Kristel, Heldon, Ryan and the rest of their posse members who died before landing could possibly qualify due to their Lack of Empathy towards their surroundings outside of their robbery goals despite having less screen time then Qualen, Travers, Delmar and Kynette.
  • The Starscream:
    • Travers attempts to be this until Qualen took the upper hand and regains command.
    • While not a Big Bad Wannabe, Delmar wishes Kynette to be bumped off either by his hand or not so he could take his place of The Dragon for Qualen.
  • Take My Hand: Gabe tries to save Tucker's girlfriend this way. It doesn't work.
  • This Is for Emphasis, Bitch!: See Bond One-Liner and Pre-Mortem One-Liner above.
  • Those Two Guys: Brett and Evan, the two friendly extreme sports enthusiasts.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Kynette and Delmar might have lived to steal and terrorize another day if they had just done away with Gabe and Hal quickly and quietly instead of dragging out their fights just for their own gratification. Instead Kynette receives a very karmic attack on his privates before being impaled and Delmar gets a knife in the leg before Hal shoots him.
  • The Unfettered: Qualen wants the money at all costs. Any bystander is just an inconvenience to him and his own men are just pawns. Even Kristel, his lover and possibly the less sadistic member of his gang is not safe from him as he kills her just to remain the only one pilot.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Or rather, on an urban legend among American climbers. The legend version was that a dope smuggling plane had gone down in the mountains and been found by climbers, who - being the only people able to get to it - recovered the stash. David Breashears, who was employed on the Movie as a climber, relates the story in his book High Exposure.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Travers when he finds Gabe has outsmarted him and he'll never be able to locate the money, rendering all his crooked dealings to get it moot.
    • And from Quelen: "DAMN YOU WALKER!!"
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Threatened, but never actually done. Mainly because the characters take steps to ensure that they don't.
    • Played straight when Qualen shoots dead loyal pilot Kristel after serving him well just for Qualen to show who's boss towards Travers when the latter attempts to become The Starscream.
      • Well that and Qualen was now the only person alive in the group who knew how to pilot a helicopter. Which made killing him a less than desirable option.