As Blu-ray keeps going we’re going to get releases of some classic films, and Sony has put out to early 90’s action films that benefit from new transfers. Those films are both from 1993: Cliffhanger and The Last Action Hero. The pairing of these films as interesting as they both star action stars from the 1980’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone) at the beginning of the end of their runs. But the end of the decade, both had worn out their welcome as the industry shifted towards comic book heroes for their summer thrills. My reviews of Cliffhanger and Last Action Hero after the jump.
Cliffhanger is the better of the two. Directed by Renny Harlin, it was definitely of the CGI era, but it also came in that transitioning time where there were a lot of sets and practical locations. Stallone stars as Gabe Walker, who used to do mountain rescue with his girl Jessie (Janine Turner) and Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker). But after an incident that leaves Hal’s girlfriend dead, Gabe retires. Cut to a treasury plane, where Treasury agent Travers (Rex Linn) is stealing a bunch of dead currency with Qualen (John Lithgow, in scenery chewing mode). When their heist goes bad, the men and Qualen’s henchmen and woman (including Leon, Caroline Goodall, and Craig Fairbass) are stuck on a mountain trying to track where the money landed. And at that exact moment Gabe has returned to get some stuff, and goes back to the mountain to help Hal. They get kidnapped by Qualen’s men, and decide to fight them off. Because they’re good guys.
I will always have a soft spot for Cliffhanger, because when I saw it in the theater, there is a shot of Sylvester Stallone climbing a mountain and as the camera circles around him, his height becomes perceptible, and I got a sense of vertigo in the theater. This is the sort of thing you can only do practically, and it shows, and it is worth it. Though – arguably – the film never tops that moment, it had me in its back pocket and I’ve stayed there for nearly twenty years. The rest of the film is a slightly better redress of Harlin’s Die Harder, or more to the point Die Hard, as it is Die Hard on a Mountain, but Harlin knows how to deliver action set pieces, and the film is a great deal of fun, and with solid choreography. Some of the CGI work looks primitive now (it always does) and some of the sets are more apparent in 1080p than were on previous home video viewings (or maybe I’ve just become more aware of those things – I hadn’t watched the film in a long time), but Harlin knows what he’s doing. And it’s good junk fun.
For Stallone this was near the end of his reign, and one of his last action jewels. Rocky was retired, and Rambo ended poorly (at that point). This was his return to action after some poorly received comedies, and he stayed in action until he tried to relaunch himself (unsuccessfully) with Copland. Diminishing returns followed until Rocky Balboa showed that people still loved Sly.
Sony’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in English 5.1 DTS-HD. The picture quality on this film has never been as lifelike at home as it was in the theater, and the transfer is better than the previous DVD, but it doesn’t pop. Perhaps that’s the cinematography, but I remember this looking great on the big screen. Extras are recycled from the laserdisc and DVD, with a commentary by Renny Harlin and Stallone, and a technical crew commentary, an intro by Harlin (5 min.) from the laserdisc, two deleted scenes with an intro (8 min.), a period making of (20 min.), two pieces on the special effects (7 min.), three storyboard comparisons (12 min.) and the film’s original theatrical trailer with an intro by Harlin. Also included are bonus trailers.
Last Action Hero opened near Jurassic Park and got creamed domestically (even though it wasn’t a total fiscal disaster). It was the first film to show a chink in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s armor, and John McTiernan’s second bust film in a row (following Medicine Man), which may have tipped his career away. Now at that point, John McTiernan had virtually revolutionized American action with Predator, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, three films that have stood the test of time. Had McTiernan not shit the bed with Medicine Man, it would be interesting to see what would have happened with his career. Alas, he fell from grace, and probably was trying to make a safe win with Last Action Hero, but as became famous, the script was troubled, rewritten and the film is still a mess. But, with the passage of time, it’s become a very fascinating failure.
Arnie plays Jack Slater, a movie character that Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) likes more than his life. He lives in New York with his single mother, and is bored in school, and gets robbed by a crook, and in that is hsown to be a weakling. Though he knows Slater is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, he loves Slater more and all the sequels (ironically, at this point Arnold had only had two sequels: Terminator 2 and Conan the Destroyer, which makes this more of a parody of Lethal Weapon). Frank (Art Carney) is the projectionist at Danny’s favorite theater, and offers Danny a chance to see the new Jack Slater film early, and in doing so rips a golden ticket given to Frank by Harry Houdini (this is weird to begin with as Houdini didn’t believe in real magic or mysticism, and I know this and I know very little about Houdini, but whatever). With the ripped ticket, Danny is able to enter the movie, where he interacts with everything going on and is completely aware of all the clichés apparent in the film. He tells Jack’s boss Lieutenant Dekker (Frank McRae) that they’re really friends, and kisses Jack’s daughter Meredith (Bridgette Wilson). But the villain, Tony Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn) has a sidekick in Benedict (Charles Dance) who believes the one thing Jack doesn’t: that maybe this really is a movie, and so he leaves the film to experience the real world, and then so does Jack and Danny, to return to the grimy streets of New York.
The film pays a lot of inside baseball, and a lot of inside-outside baseball (jokes about Stallone playing the Terminator, etc.). The biggest problem with the movie is that the main character is a twerp. Not helping anything is that Austin O’Brien comes across as the standard cut cute Hollywood kid, and precious and precocious is absolutely wrong for the role. As such, he’s whiny and not having as much fun as anyone else would while being in the middle of the film that he loves. It’s a deeply misguided approach to the character, and it’s the film’s most fundamental flaw.
That said this is easily Arnie’s best acting role, as he gets to have fun with his wooden antics, and gets involved in one of the most blatant bits of self-parody that a mainstream actor has ever taken part in that wasn’t trying to resurrect their career. This also may explain the failure. The film was asking its core audience to recognize the absurdity of the thing they loved. The film is also PG-13, which fits with the kid. That said, now that the film has been lambasted (Harry Knowles called it one of the worst films ever made), it is still directed by John McTiernan near the top of his game, and there are moments here and there where you get what the film could have been had it worked at all. Instead it’s a fascinating failure, with a great performance from Charles Dance (once he arrives in real New York, he has a great scene where he kills a man and shouts in the streets “I said, I have just murdered a man, and I wish to confess!” and gets shouted down by neighbors).
This was the beginning of the end for Arnold. Though True Lies was a modest success the next year, his films were very expensive, and had ceilings (Eraser did well enough). By the end of the decade, with films like The Sixth Day and End of Days, he was no longer everyone’s favorite, and he even resorted to playing the Terminator one last time. But if he couldn’t do action, he was done, as the man’s presence had little to do with acting, or dialogue. Robbed of that, he retreated to a much simpler pastime. Politics.
Sony’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1), and English 5.1 DTS-HD. The transfer is excellent, though that’s the only benefit to upgrading as the film only comes with trailers. It would be something to see a making of on this film at this point, just because it would be fun to have everyone publically point fingers at what went wrong. For a film that plays this much inside baseball, it would be on point.