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Movie Reviews : Not Much Plot to Hang Onto : ‘Cliffhanger’ has plenty of mayhem, high-flying stunts and sadistic fight scenes, but the story falls short.

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Someday they’ll make an action picture that manages to do without a plot. Someday they’ll figure out how to squeeze so much mayhem into two hours that it won’t matter who is doing what to whom. But for now, no matter how spectacular the stunts are, they still have to be connected to a scenario, and as long as that’s the case, films like “Cliffhanger” (citywide) are going to continue to fall short.

Make no mistake, the high-flying stunts in director Renny Harlin’s film are definitely state of the art, and while they’re going on, the film works up a serious level of excitement. But as soon as the action stops and the inevitable talking begins, “Cliffhanger” falls to earth with a considerable thud.

Though director Harlin has claimed, presumably with a straight face, that he took this project on because it would give him “more in terms of character and relationships” than his previous “Die Hard 2,” and despite a rather involved writing credit (screenplay by Michael France and Sylvester Stallone and a screen story by Michael France based on a premise by John Long), “Cliffhanger” has the kind of dramatic texture that would look undernourished in a comic book.

Stallone, obviously, did more than take a pencil to the film’s inconsequential script, he also stars as Gabe Walker, mainstay of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Team, specialists in helping those stranded in the unforgiving snows of Colorado.

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After a challenging on-site experience that is perhaps “Cliffhanger’s” best sequence (so don’t come late), Gabe decides the mountains are no longer for him. He wants his sweetheart and fellow rescuer Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner, veteran of TV’s equally snow-bound “Northern Exposure”) to leave as well, but she thinks that’s an offer she can refuse.

While Jessie and Gabe exchange insights about the vagaries of human behavior, “Cliffhanger’s” other plot shoe drops. A Treasury jet carrying exactly $100 million is attacked by hijackers, and soon the cases of money as well as the plane come crashing down right in Jessie and Gabe’s neck of the woods.

Eric Qualen (John Lithgow), the oh-so-evil genius who heads the hijack crew, decides he needs professional help locating the $100 million, not to mention getting back to town. And, quicker than Jack Frost, Jessie, Gabe and teammate Hal Tucker (“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’s” Michael Rooker) all end up on top of the mountain going toe to toe with the desperadoes.

Tucker is initially introduced as a character who bears a fearsome grudge against Gabe (could this have been the “more in terms of character and relationships” that Harlin was talking about?). But once the action gets started, that enmity all but disappears, as does any chance of memorable acting from anyone. Even Lithgow, whose bravura villain role in Jim McBride’s made-for-Showtime “The Wrong Man” was one of the delights of the Cannes Film Festival, can only do so much with a part that seems to have been written for Alan Rickman.

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Seeing “Cliffhanger” also underscores what an act of sheer will it has been for Stallone to turn himself into an international action star. His career-making role in the original “Rocky” is still his best work, and its mixture of light action and pathos remains his most successful acting path. Despite having bulked himself up into the appropriate body, Stallone tends to come off as awkward when he does battle, betrayed by a face that seems more sad and sensitive than believably heroic.

Another problem for Stallone, as well as “Cliffhanger’s” most offensive aspect, is the way he insists on playing average guy Gabe as if he’s more invulnerable than the Terminator. Both Gabe and Hal receive horrendous beatings from the bad guys that are extended well beyond the point of sadism, beatings of a ferocity that would kill almost anyone, yet they survive with hardly a noticeable aftereffect. It is not a pretty picture and, if there was any sense in the ratings system, it would earn this picture an NC-17 instead of its timid R (for violence and language).

If you can survive those beatings and the exposition doesn’t excessively bore you, the beauty of the Italian Alps’ Dolomite range (which doubled for Colorado in Alex Thomson’s crisp photography) and those action sequences (including dizzying climbing and some exceptional midair antics, which are not sadistic) all function as advertised. “Cliffhanger” no doubt makes for a great coming attraction, but as a two-hour movie its claims are much more problematic.

‘Cliffhanger’

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Sylvester Stallone: Gabe Walker

John Lithgow: Eric Qualen

Michael Rooker: Hal Tucker

Janine Turner: Jessie Deighan

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Rex Linn: Travers

Caroline Goodall: Kristel

A Carolco/Le Studio Canal+/Pioneer production in association with RCS Video, released by TriStar Pictures. Director Renny Harlin. Producers Alan Marshall, Renny Harlin. Executive producer Mario Kassar. Screenplay Michael France and Sylvester Stallone, screen story by Michael France, based on a premise by John Long. Cinematographer Alex Thomson. Editor Frank J. Urioste. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Music Trevor Jones. Production design John Vallone. Art directors Aurelio Crugnola, Christiaan Wagener. Set decorator Bob Gould. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (violence and language).

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