This movie didn’t start out being about rock climbing.
Carolco Pictures had originally signed Sylvester Stallone to appear opposite John Candy — of all people — in Bartholomew Vs. Neffa, a John Hughes written and directed comedy about feuding neighbors. That movie was dropped, but Stallone stayed on for two more projects.
Isobara: Written by Jim Uhis (who adapted Fight Club and also wrote Jumper), this movie was about a genetically created monster set loose on a high-speed runaway train. Stallone and Kim Basinger were set to star with either Ridley Scott or Roland Emmerich directing. However, artistic disagreements between Carolco and producer Joel Silver caused this movie to get canceled.
Gale Force: Described as “Die Hard in a hurricane,” Renny Harlin was set to direct Stallone in a film where he’d play an ex-Navy SEAL battling modern pirates in the midst of a large scale hurricane. It went through numerous re-writes over several years of development. In fact, they even brought Joe Eszterhas in for a rewrite and spent $500,000 on him turning the movie into an erotic thriller, which isn’t what anyone wanted. The budget spiraled out of control and the film was canceled two weeks before production was to begin, but Harlin kept his pay or play deal worth $3 million.
Somehow, Carolco then decided to spend double of Gale Force‘s budget on Cliffhanger and brought Harlin back to direct it.
Due to Carolco’s debt issues. half of the film’s budget was paid for by TriStar Pictures in exchange for complete distribution rights in North America, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and France. Rizzoli-Corriere della Sera, Le Studio Canal+, and Pioneer Electric Corporation also helped finance the film, which meant that even when it was successful, Carolco saw nearly none of the money. Trivia note: This is the last movie to show the Tri-Star Pictures logo.
Honestly, between Gale Force, Cliffhanger and Cutthtroat Island, Renny Harlin pretty much decimated Carolco. I’m shocked people didn’t try to have him killed.
Mountain rangers Gabriel “Gabe” Walker (Stallone) and Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner, Northern Exposure) race to save their fellow ranger Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker) when his knee gives out and he’s trapped in the Colorado Rockies with his girlfriend Sarah (Michelle Joyner, Outbreak). Despite their best efforts, her harness breaks and her hand slips from her glove as Gabe tries to rescue her. Hal blames him for her death and he leaves for nearly a year.
Gabe returns to gather his remaining possessions and try to talk Jessie into leaving with him. A distress call from a group of stranded climbers comes in, so Hal and Jessie go to help, persuading Gabe to come with them. Hal remains angry and even threatens Gabe’s life at one point, but they soon learn that the distress call was a fake.
It turns out that U.S. Treasury agent Richard Travers (Rex Linn, CSI Miami) stole three suitcases full of uncirculated bills valuing over $100 million. However, their plane has crashed and now he and a gang of criminals — led by John Lithgow as an ex-military intelligence operative — plan on using the rangers to locate the missing money. Lithgow took over for Christopher Walken, who left the production a few days before shooting started. Harlin’s first choice for the role? Davdi Bowie.
Stallone would later say of the film, “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.”
One of the recuts involved the scene where the rabbit gets shot at. Audiences hated seeing the rabbit die so much that Stallone spent $100,000 of his own money for a reshoot.
There’s also the issue of the Piton gun, which fires pitons directly into rock. Usually, in reality, climbing requires rock-drilling and piton-hammering. If the Piton gun were real, there would be shattered rock and shrapnel with each shot. But hey — when you’re hanging off a mountain and making a movie, why worry about those kinds of things?
That said — this is a surprisingly violent movie, as one scene where a henchman attacks Hal is incredibly bloody. Not a lot of people discuss this movie, but it holds up pretty well more than a quarter century after its initial release.
The film is still in the Guinness Book of World Records for the costliest aerial stunt ever performed, a stunt in which Simon Crane jumps between two planes at 15,000 feet with no trick photography. Obviously, in the pre-CGI days, you did stunts like that. The insurance company refused to insure this stunt, so Stallone — man, he was just giving away what I make in five years to get this made — reduced his fee for the movie by the final cost of this stunt.
TriStar Pictures planned to make a sequel called Cliffhanger 2: The Dam, which would have had Gabe defend the Hoover Dam against terrorists. This project almost made it to the screen in 1994 and 2008 before StudioCanal would make a remake of the film. That project was in development for nearly a decade before a female-centric reboot was announced in 2019 that will be written by Sascha Penn (Creed 2) and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night).