There are many words we think of when the action films of the ‘80s come up. “Indulgent,” “ridiculous,” “macho,” “testosterone-filled,” and “gratuitous” are just a few, and indeed, it’s what we think of their top-billing stars as well, though this latter association is oddly invisible. We label Arnold Schwarzenegger as “the star,” or “the lead,” and the films he stars in in his heyday as “ridiculous,” not pausing to consider that the persona of the star and the film in this particular subset of films—‘80s action extravaganzas—are one and the same. What is our impression of Predator without “GET TO THE CHOPPA,” The Terminator without “I’ll be back,” The Running Man (my personal favorite) without “Witness Sub-Zero—now just—PLAIN zero!” Even though these are all wonderful films in their own right, the ludicrously macho energy of Schwarzenegger overwhelms and defines their identities.
Contrast this to the modern action film, which, yes, has attractive stars who will hopefully attract box office success, but cannot bank on that alone (see the underperformance of Skyscraper, which ended Dwayne Johnson’s streak of profitable if-not-great blockbusters). More is required to lure the audience into the carnival tent now—special effects, brand recognition—and the sad truth is, a potential Schwarzenegger of today has to share the screen with all of that clutter. They cannot be the soul of the film anymore in most mainstream action fare; they aren’t even a distant second. For all of my qualms with the John Wick or Taken sequels, at least both franchises started with the invaluable trait of building films around Keanu Reeves’ or Liam Neeson’s on-screen personas, which has become the exception rather than the rule.
Looking back at our favorite older action films, then, it shouldn’t be surprising that we divide ourselves into camps based not on individual movies, but stars (or series) and their entire filmographies. There are the obvious ones: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, every James Bond; smaller niches (or honestly, lower calibers)—Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren. And I, always one for a little bit of an under-dog, have always been most attracted to the soul of Sylvester Stallone’s work.
STALLONE THE PUPPY
While he’s received a little renaissance of sorts with the release of Creed and soon Creed II, Stallone has always seemed a little like the sloppy seconds of the ‘80s. There’s The Terminator and then Rambo, True Lies and then Demolition Man, Eraser and, well… Assassins, Stallone’s filmography always playing second fiddle in popularity. This sounds horribly harsh, but this second-hand feeling points to a crucial truth in Stallone’s emotional core as an actor… (and yes, I just said that)…
The fear of being overlooked.
It started with Rocky, Stallone’s undeniable magnum opus and defining moment, even if you’re someone who doesn’t particularly like it. (Me—I’m a person who doesn’t like it. Me.) He plays Rocky Balboa, a low-level debt collector and hoodlum in the streets of Philadelphia, hoping, in the words of a certain Brando, “To be a contender,” spiritually and literally. No one takes him seriously, either as a man or a boxer, but he is given a chance as the champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) challenges him as an easy publicity stunt, giving the little guy a chance. As Balboa trains, (or more accurately, aimlessly wanders around the streets bouncing his tiny ball, waiting for the story to arrive) he comes across a meek tofu named Adrian (Talia Shire). Together they share slice of life moments together like awkwardly roller-skating, awkwardly meeting Adrian’s brother, awkwardly standing around and enjoying the simple pleasure of breathing the same air as another person, Shire pushing her lines out like an out-of-breath flute player, Stallone occasionally rumbling like a drooping tuba, belying his actual acting ability (again, yes, I just said that). Then there’s an exciting montage! And then more wandering. And then an, admittedly, incredible final fight where Rocky stuns Creed and the world alike as he proves his manhood and his fighting ability by almost defeating the champ.
In both Rocky I/II and the first Rambo, Stallone is a perpetual under-dog, hiding some inner determination and strength underneath a hangdog appearance, seeking the world’s approval. Remember the cruelty and disregard shown him as a recent veteran in First Blood, the humiliating ad scene from Rocky II. Stallone’s ’70s and ‘80s stardom comes, not from being the buffest, coolest macho action man, but because we truly believe that he can be overlooked—and that he can succeed despite our expectations. This is shown even in his silliest, bottom-of-the-barrel-est filmography, like Over the Top, as he plays a blue-collar trucker trying to bond with his son through arm-wrestling while a moustache-twirling rich Robert Loggia attempts to snatch custody away from him. This emotional core recurs again and again in Stallone’s work.
But how does Stallone’s oeuvre have such consistent qualities, if not consistent quality? The answer is shockingly simple and rare for an actor, even today—because he writes most of it. That’s right, this man:
Is actually a man of letters. And a pretty prolific one at that!
Stallone has been at least co-writing the majority of his work for ages now, even trying his hand at directing to mild success, too. Rocky was his original screenplay, his passion project—studios attempted to buy the script from him for up to $150,000 (in ‘70s money), with the simple condition that he not be in it, especially not as the leading man. Now, this guy was broke—broke-broke. He had to sell his dog to pay for food and rent. But he held out that he wanted to star in it, and eventually reached a deal where he was payed a measly few thousand dollars, but got his face solidified in the American pop-culture consciousness forever, and was able to buy his dog back for several thousand dollars. So, when Stallone says in Rocky…
“The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't how hard you hit; it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward.”
…he means it. Knows it. Has lived it. And as such, as goofy and downright awful as some of his projects are, he genuinely believes in what he is creating, the messages he is leaving. Regardless of what I think of the film itself, I have nothing but respect for him and the creation of Rocky. Because of this irreplaceable quality, no matter how hammy his performances or lines can sometimes be, we believe him. And as Pauline Kael once said, the most important part of acting is not diction, or method, or disappearing into a character, but, “When he speaks, I believe him.” And I always believe Sylvester Stallone. He will always, totally, almost achingly, bring all of his sincerity, marshal all of his artistic talent to every film I see him in, regardless of the result.
Which brings us to Cliffhanger.
From a distance, this film has “also-ran-Die Hard” written all over it. It comes in the early ‘90s, a prime era of Die Hard ripoffs that can be summed up as “Die Hard on a…” Air Force One: Die Hard but on Air Force One with the President as John McClane. Executive Decision: Die Hard on a plane. Speed: Die Hard on a bus. The Rock: Die Hard in a prison. Cliffhanger has a similarly simplistic log line—Die Hard on a mountain—and is directed by none other than Renny Harlin, the director of Die Hard 2, even starring an Alan Rickman-Hans Gruber wannabe in John Lithgow and Peter Qualen. But that’s about where the obnoxious Die Hard similarities end and Cliffhanger, the quaint, earnest action movie in its own right, begins.
The first thing that strikes people who I kidnap and force to wa—I mean invite over and encourage to see Cliffhanger at their leisure—is the stunning cinematography and production. This is a gorgeous movie, filmed in the Italian Alps with panning shots and huge wide frames that make Stallone look almost miniscule. Of course, he looks less so up close, what with his rippling pectorals, almost more an extension of the mountain than its antagonist. And the soundtrack kicks all kinds of ass too, with a wonderful orchestral score by Trevor Jones, that, along with the mountains, convey a real sense of ambition and scope, even if the actual plot aims are fairly limited.
Adding to that first great impression is a tense-as-hell scene with Stallone as Gabe Walker literally hanging over a precipice in Colorado (yes, that’s actually him, I checked) and climbing to conduct a rescue operation, ending in a genuinely unexpected tragedy as his friend Hal (Michael Rooker)’s girlfriend falls to her death. Of course, we now have capital-P Pathos in the story, and the closest we get to explicit character development in the film—Gabe has retired from mountain rescue operations because he blames himself for the death of Hal’s love.
Cue one of the most lovingly convoluted action movie set ups of all time: a National Treasury plane is hijacked in midair above the Rockies by a gang of terrorists led by John Lithgow as Peter Qualen, hoping to steal $100 million. Unfortunately, the plot goes awry, and the money (and plane) crashes to the earth. In an attempt to both save themselves and the money scattered around the mountain range, Qualen makes a fake distress call to be “rescued.” Gabe and Hal, hoping to squash the emotional beef, come to rescue him, only to be taken hostage and forced to find the money for him. And then, Die Hard-esque shenanigans ensue.
Plot-wise, Cliffhanger is all incredibly straightforward, but it is easily the best Sylvester Stallone film, and an exemplification of his strengths as a persona. Schwarzenegger, despite his own rags to riches story, has always come across on-screen as permanently glitzy, the rock star bodybuilder who took Hollywood by storm. Even in films such as Total Recall, where you have to see him as a construction worker —it just never fits. But Stallone is the simple mountain climber, trucker, veteran—his body and presence convey a blue collar, down-to-earth energy onscreen while he does his best with the dialogue, and as long as the film around him is on the same page, it works. And Cliffhanger is definitely on the same page. Even the one-liners fall into the “earnestly trying a little too hard to be cool” category. (As Stallone burns some cash for warmth—“Costs a fortune to heat this place!”)
This is a goofy, sincere summer blockbuster that is exactly what it appears to be—a solid action movie with an incredible location and stunts, anchored by a stalwart working horse of the action genre—Stallone. It wants to impress the audience, wow the audience, and it believes in its own aims. There is not a lick of cynicism in the whole production. For that, I will always love it, and Sylvester Stallone as an actor. They might not be Great…
…but they are sincerely doing their best.