Picks and Pans Review: Cliffhanger

updated 06/14/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/14/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sylvester Stallone, Janine Turner, John Lithgow

The mountain-peak rescue mission that kicks off this, the latest wide-screen epic from Stallone, is about the most stomach-churningly intense 10 minutes I've ever sat through in a movie. You have a barren peak that rises up and up to nothing more than a skinny wedge, you have a helicopter floating nearby, a cable connecting peak to chopper, Stallone dangling from the cable, and holding onto his hand—with nothing but vertiginous rocky depths below—a young woman. And her glove is slipping.

One's palms grow damp.

Nothing in Cliffhanger could possibly surpass that terrific opening jolt, but it's a smart, enjoyable summer action thriller nonetheless, directed by Renny Harlin with the focused energy of a Boy Scout earning badges. You'll be glad to see a sidewalk when it's over. The script, which is so much planking from one high point to another, has Stallone and Turner as park rangers in Colorado (the beautiful exterior footage is actually the Italian Dolomites) racing after $100 million in loot that has been stolen from the federal treasury and...oh, really, it's scarcely worth it to explain, except to note that the money falls into the mountains after a spectacular airborne heist (masterminded by Lithgow) goes wrong.

Cliffhanger has exploding planes, avalanches, hungry wolves, panicked bats, frigid waters and lots of bodies falling, falling, falling. Everything but the abominable snowman dancing the watusi during a blizzard.

Even with all this, you may find yourself missing the self-mocking playfulness that gives an Indiana Jones or an 007 epic added zing. Lithgow, who normally makes a sensationally over-the-top baddie, underplays here. It's like having to make do with Ethel Merman humming. Stallone;, too, is unusually subdued. He does have one vintage moment, though, when he impales a villain on a stalactite. Yes, that's the one that hangs down; impaling someone on a stalagmite wouldn't be half as cool. (R)

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