Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The opening to Cliffhanger is meant to be a harrowing experience. We're meant to feel enormous sorrow and pity as an innocent woman plunges to her horrible death. But how can we experience any kind of horror when Frank, a helicopter pilot played by Ralph Waite out of The Waltons, is in the background cackling with laughter? Just watch him. His eyes sparkle when Stallone tells the distressed woman that she's not doing to die. And he collapses in near hysterics when she falls but a few seconds later, obviously finding some kind of sick humour at the thought of the girl being smashed to pieces on the rocks, thousands of feet below. Contrast this with Michael Rooker's overacting – he almost faints as if he’s in a Jane Austen novel when he sees the girl plummet – and you have a scene that is tailor-made for chortles rather than gasps.

But to be fair to Stallone and the girl, they carry themselves pretty well in the scene. The girl pleads and pleads, and Stallone gamely hangs on. And the situation itself is excellent – huge drop, cracked harness, burly, lazy-mouthed actor trying to hang on to a hysterical woman who won’t shut the fuck up. But whenever I watch it, I can only see Frank's huge grin, his glowing eyes and him hooting in the background as Michael Rooker’s world falls apart. What exactly does Frank find so funny? Is he an evil old buzzard or has senility stalked its way into his spongy old brain? In his advanced years, does he think that the woman will be caught by kittens and rocketed to Valhalla in a chariot driven by mohawked-squirrels wearing diamond-encrusted strap-ons that spurt single-malt whisky? Or does he just not give a shit? Who the fuck knows...

However, as inappropriate as it is, Frank’s laughter isn’t entirely out of place. Nope, laughter is a common reaction when watching Cliffhanger. This isn’t to say that I dislike the film. It's a very enjoyable B-grade action movie. But it can't transcend the clichés of the genre.

One of the clichés the film adheres to is that the villain must be English. Well, at least I think he is. John Lithgow plays the main baddie and puts on an accent of some sort. But it's an amusing performance. His best bit has to be when he gets Stallone to climb up a rockface to get his money. "You, stay,” he says to the dribbling Rooker. And then to Stallone: “You, fetch." The joy is in his exaggerated enunciation. ‘Fetch’ somehow seems to have acquired an additional five syllables. Another funny bit is when Stallone throws Lithgow's money into the helicopter's rotors. "Damn you, Walker!" he screams like he's split a fingernail.

But there are other English villains. The first is Caroline Goodall who comes across as a low-rent Emma Thompson. But much more amusing is Craig Fairbrass (Dan out of EastEnders). His performance is atrocious. All he does is shout and swear. And he does it in a thick Cockney accent. “Fack this! Fack that!”

Fairbrass is immortalised in the scene where the drooling Michael Rooker goads him into beating him up. The Cockney is about as bright as a puddle of oil and forgoes a quick kill in favour of a prolonged pummeling. It turns out that Fairbrass' character is an ex-footballer. I guess this shouldn't be too surprising when his dialogue consists of lines like: "Yeah? And you're a loudmouth punk slag who's about to die." The only people I know who talk like that are West Ham fans.

But Fairbrass proceeds to give Rooker a surreal football-themed kicking, complete with running commentary – he even runs up to take a penalty. Is this how Hollywood sees the English? We're either effete brigands or beer-swilling hooligans. Actually, thinking about it, it's quite an accurate observation. Well done Renny Harlin. In your world of back-swimming sharks and flying Indy cars, you managed to find a single truth.

However, my favourite villain of all is played by Leon (he's so cool he doesn't even have a surname). He’s a tough Lennox Lewis-looking-like-motherfucker who eschews Fairbrass' shouty brand of villainy and instead tries to be quietly intimidating. This would be great but his line delivery is atrocious. He has no timing and seems incapable of emphasizing the right words. Where Lithgow can stretch and bend and slather layers of wonderful ham on his dialogue, Leon can only make his words sound like leaden mouth farts.

But to give the guy his dues, it is noticeable that, unlike Fairbrass, he does excel once he gives in to his urge to shout. He has a great scene in a cave where he actually seems like a genuine threat - he stalks Stallone and his girl with menace, taunting impotent old whitey with his ultimate fear; his girl having a black dick thrust upon her (and her liking it!). But before Stallone’s girlfriend Jessie has to suffer this outrage, Stallone grabs Leon by the balls and gorilla presses him through a spike. It's a WWE sort of death…which unsurprisingly I dig a great deal. (Although the filmmakers did miss a trick by not having Stallone yell, ‘You get the point!’ before shish-kebabing the scary black man.)

Speaking of Stallone, how does he fair in this film? Well, I've never really had much of a problem with Sly as an actor. Yeah, technically he’s not too great and yes he sounds like a man who was born with his brain upside down, but he is capable of a good performance here and there - just watch Copland or Rocky Balboa. Sadly, Cliffhanger is not one of those films. He’s okay at the beginning, showing humour and charm, but after the accident it all goes downhill. His idea of being haunted is to mope about like a thirteen-year-old that's been told to stop using his father's credit card to download porn. It's so amateurish.

Thank Christ then for Stallone’s bulging biceps! It’s these puppies that are given the opportunity to shine. I mean, just take the scene where the villains order Stallone to climb the mountain to retrieve their money. They make him remove his jacket. I can't help but feel that this wasn't done to prove how evil the villains are, but to allow Sly to climb while flaunting his thick, muscular arms. We don't want those babies covered up, no sirree!

However, Stallone and his biceps look like Marlon Brando compared to the "Whoa, dude!" extreme sports enthusiasts that pop up. They're sort of like Bill and Ted but without the charm. In fact, I wasn't distraught that one of them died; I was distraught that one survived. But at least the death of the Kurt Cobain lookalike gives us a hilarious silent "No!" moment from the gurning Michael Rooker, who once again amazes me with his sincere cheese. But then later on we get to relive the hilarity, because Frank's death elicits another rib-tickling "No!" moment.

Hey, what can I say, the old buzzard had it coming. You ain't laughing now, are you?

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