Rangers Gabriel "Gabe" Walker and Jessie Deighan are dispatched to rescue their friend Hal Tucker and his girlfriend, Sarah, after Hal suffered a knee injury and stranded them on a peak in the Colorado Rockies. As they try to rescue Sarah, part of her harness breaks, and though Gabe is able to grab her, her gloved hand slips out, and she falls to her death. Hal blames Gabe for Sarah's death and Gabe is overcome with guilt, taking an extended leave.
Eight months later, Gabe returns to the ranger station to gather his remaining possessions and persuade Jessie to leave with him. While there, they receive a distress call from a group of stranded climbers. Hal goes to locate the climbers and Jessie is able to persuade Gabe to help out. Hal remains bitter towards Gabe over Sarah's death, at one point threatening to push Gabe off a ledge. When they find the climbers, they discover the distress call was a ruse and are taken prisoner by former Military Intelligence operative Eric Qualen and several mercenaries. Qualen, along with turncoat U.S. Treasury agent Richard Travers, were able to steal three suitcases full of uncirculated bills valuing over $100 million. Their escape plan backfired, sending their plane crashing into the mountain, and they now require Gabe and Hal's help to locate the cases with the help of beacon locators.
At gunpoint, Gabe leads them to the first case, located at the top of a steep rock face. They force Gabe to tether himself to reach it, and Gabe uses the opportunity to escape. The mercenaries attempt to fire on Gabe, which causes an avalanche that kills one of their members. When they see the money from the first case fluttering away, Qualen believes Gabe is dead, and orders Hal to lead them onward. Gabe races ahead to find Jessie at an abandoned cabin. They recover old mountaineering gear to reach the second case before Qualen does. By the time Qualen arrives, Gabe and Jessie have emptied the case and left only a single bill with the taunting message "Want to trade?" on it. Qualen orders his men to split up, allowing Gabe to dispatch two more of Qualen's men. Gabe attempts to call for help from Frank, their rescue helicopter pilot, on one of the mercenaries' radios, but Hal alerts him to explosives Qualen has rigged above them on the mountain. Gabe and Jessie escape the falling debris in time. Elsewhere, when Hal sees two friends, Evan and Brett, he warns them away before Qualen orders his men to open fire. Brett is killed while Evan is wounded, though he manages to ski off the mountain and parachute to safety. Night falls on the mountain and both groups take shelter. Frank, having not heard from Gabe or the others, scouts the mountain in the helicopter, spots Evan's parachute, and is able to get him to safety while contacting the authorities.
When morning breaks, Gabe and Jessie beat Qualen to the last case. Meanwhile, the mercenaries flag down Frank in the helicopter, and by the time he realizes it's a trap it is too late. He is shot by one of the mercenaries and dies, but not before slipping Hal a knife. As the mercenaries split up to look for the other case, Hal is able to use the knife to wound one of the mercenaries, kill him with his own gun, and escape. Elsewhere Hal finds Gabe, and together they kill Travers. However, at the same time, Qualen takes Jessie hostage when she waves down the helicopter, believing that Frank was flying it. Qualen tells Gabe and Hal over the radio that he is holding Jessie captive on board the helicopter, demanding Gabe and Hal to surrender the money from the third case at a high elevated rendezvous point and threatens to kill her should they refuse to cooperate.
Gabe and Hal agree, and they meet at a cliff side bridge. However, Qualen tries to challenge Gabe into throwing the case into the helicopter, but when he also threatens to kill Jessie again, Gabe orders Qualen to free her at a safe distance away from the cliff. Qualen reluctantly agrees, and uses a winch to lower Jessie to the ground. Once Jessie is safely down, however, Gabe throws the bag of money into the helicopter's rotors, shredding the money. Enraged, Qualen attempts to fly off, but Gabe has used the winch cable to tether the helicopter to a steel ladder up the cliff face. The ladder snaps and leaves Gabe and Qualen atop the wreckage of the helicopter hanging by the cable. Gabe fights Qualen and manages to climb to safety as the wreckage snaps off the cable, sending Qualen to his death. Gabe reunites with Jessie and Hal as federal agents arrive in helicopters to offer their assistance.Sylvester Stallone as Gabriel "Gabe" Walker, a former mountain climber and rescue ranger haunted by his failure to save the girlfriend of his best friend, Hal Tucker
John Lithgow as Eric Qualen, a sadistic former military intelligence officer, now leader of the gang of thieves trying to rob $100 million from the U.S. Treasury
Michael Rooker as Hal Tucker, Gabe's best friend and a mountain ranger who blames Gabe for failing to save Sarah
Janine Turner as Jessie Deighan, Gabe's girlfriend who works in the same mountain search-and-rescue group, and whom Gabe has become distant from since failing to save Sarah
Rex Linn as Richard Travers, a U.S. Treasury agent who is a double agent working with Qualen
Caroline Goodall as Kristel, Qualen's pilot and companion
Leon Robinson as Kynette, Qualen's brutal main henchman
Craig Fairbrass as Delmar, Qualen's sadistic ex-soccer player-turned-henchman.
Gregory Scott Cummins as Ryan, Qualen's henchman
Denis Forest as Heldon, Qualen's henchman
Michelle Joyner as Sarah, Hal's ill-fated girlfriend who falls to her death after Gabe failed to save her
Paul Winfield as Walter Wright, A U.S. Treasury agent who discovered Qualen's plot to rob the money from the U.S. Treasury
Ralph Waite as Frank, a search-and-rescue pilot working for Gabe, Jessie and Hal
Max Perlich as Evan, a thrill-seeking young man who is friends with Gabe and Hal
Trey Brownell as Brett, Evan's friend who is also a thrill-seeker
Vyto Ruginis as Matheson, an undercover FBI agent who foils the mid-air robbery
John Finn as Agent Michaels
Bruce McGill as Treasury Agent
Jeff McCarthy as Pilot
Wolfgang Güllich as Gabe Walker (stunt double)
Carolco Pictures had originally signed Sylvester Stallone to appear opposite John Candy in a comedy about feuding neighbors titled Bartholomew Vs. Neff, which was going to be written and directed by John Hughes. When that project was dropped, Stallone became involved in another two Carolco projects. The first one was futuristic science fiction horror Isobar, which was about a genetically created monster who gets loose on a high speed runaway train. Between 1987, when Carolco first bought the original script by Jim Uhls for $400,000, and 1991, directors Ridley Scott and Roland Emmerich were each at different points in time attached to direct the film which would have $90 million budget and Stallone and Kim Basinger were going to play the main roles. However, due to disagreements between them and Carolco and producer Joel Silver about the script changes and lack of artistic freedom, both Scott and Emmerich gave up on the project, which in the end was cancelled.
The second Carolco project in which Stallone was involved was an action disaster thriller Gale Force, described as "Die Hard in a hurricane", which Renny Harlin was going to direct, and in which Stallone would play an ex Navy SEAL who has to fight against a group of modern pirates who attack some coastal town during a large hurricane. The first version of the script for the film was written by David Chappe in 1984, he wrote six more drafts between 1987 and 1989, and after his final draft received some praise and following the bidding war between several studios for it in 1989, Carolco bought his final draft for $500,000, with a promise of an additional $200,000 if the movie gets made. Harlin was paid $3 million for directing the film, but because his contract also gave him full control of the project, he demanded many re-writes of the script to, amongst other things, increase the action sequences and make them bigger. Between 1990 and 1991 while they were working on the project, Carolco spent over $4 million on all the different screenwriters and versions of the script. One of the screenwriters who worked on it was Joe Eszterhas who was paid $500,000 to write his version of the script. However he re-wrote it into an erotic thriller, similar to his previous screenplays, so it was rejected. Because they thought that intended $40 million budget would be too big, and since they couldn't figure out how to make special effects for the film, Carolco cancelled the project two weeks before production was supposed to begin, but Harlin still kept his $3 million, and he and Stallone and everyone else involved in it then moved to Cliffhanger, another Carolco project, which had a budget of $70 million, almost double that of Gale Force.
Half of the film's budget was provided by TriStar Pictures in exchange for complete distribution rights in North America, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and France. Other funding was provided by Rizzoli-Corriere della Sera, Le Studio Canal+, and Pioneer Electric Corporation. The financing arrangement was the result of Carolco's serious debt issues, and as a result, the studio would ultimately receive very little of the box office gross.
The large majority of the film's scenes were shot in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Dolomites, Italy. For example, the bridge scene was shot on Monte Cristallo in the via ferrata VF Ivano Dibona, which was reconstructed immediately after the movie. The climbing was mostly on the Tofane cliffs, and in some scenes toward the end of the movie the audience clearly sees the three Tofane, the Croda da Lago, the village of Cortina; the location of this is on top of mount Faloria, at the arrival of the funivia Faloria. In other scenes viewers may recognize the sentiero ferrato Astaldi, over the Rifugio Dibona. The small house has been constructed on the sand of the river Boite, in Fiames, close to the heliport. Little filming took place in Durango, Colorado. The credits of the film also thank the Ute Tribe for filming in the Ute Mountain reservation.
Cliffhanger is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the costliest aerial stunt ever performed. Stuntman Simon Crane was paid $1 million to perform the aerial transfer scene, where he crossed between two planes at an altitude of 15,000 feet (4,600 m).
The principal climbing doubles were Ron Kauk and Wolfgang Güllich. The latter performed as Stallone's climbing double before he died in a car accident in 1992.
The orchestral score to Cliffhanger was composed by film score veteran Trevor Jones. In his review for the Cliffhanger soundtrack, Filmtracks.com reviewer Christian Clemmensen said its similarities to Jones's previous work on The Last of the Mohicans, stating: "with Cliffhanger would come a title theme strikingly similar to that of Last of the Mohicans, possibly too reminiscent in fact for some listeners to tolerate." However, his review was still positive, giving the Cliffhanger score four out of a possible five stars concluding, "No matter your view of whether or not composers should recycle their own material, Jones' main identity for Cliffhanger stands on its own as a remarkable piece, and an often enjoyable action underscore will maintain your interest in between the theme's statements." The soundtrack has been released twice; through Scotti Bros./BMG Music on 23 May 1993 and an extended version through Intrada Records on 21 February 2011.
Stallone later said "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."
The film was screened in out of competition at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, Best Sound (Michael Minkler, Bob Beemer, and Tim Cooney), Best Sound Effects Editing (Gregg Baxter), and Best Visual Effects all losing to Jurassic Park.
The film received a 69% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 49 reviews. It was nominated for Worst Picture, Worst Supporting Actor (John Lithgow), Worst Supporting Actress (Janine Turner), and Worst Screenplay at the 14th Golden Raspberry Awards. Although most people enjoyed Lithgow's performance, he was criticized for his inauthentic-sounding English accent, especially when next to native English actors Fairbrass and Goodall.
The film has been criticized for its unrealistic portrayal of rock climbing. One example is the feature of the bolt-gun which fires bolts directly into rock, forgoing the usual rock-drilling and bolt-hammering used in rock-climbing. This ignores certain material properties of rock that should cause the bolt-gun's impact site to shatter and explode with flaky projectiles. The bolt gun is considered the most serious of the film's technical inaccuracies. Further examples are showing athletic moves, which have no use in real climbing, or free soloing with – then also completely useless – gear.
2001: AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
The film was originally rated NC-17 by the MPAA on account of its violence. Several cuts were made to almost every violent scene in the film in order to get an R rating. Several death scenes in the film were shot in slow motion and lasted several seconds; for instance in the beginning of the film the pilot of the plane shoots the co-pilot in the head in a very brief shot; in the NC-17 version, this was shot from a different angle that showed blood splattering on the window. Bootleg DVD copies taken from a timecoded VHS workprint feature the original rough cut of the film, complete with uncut violent scenes. Travers' death originally featured him being shot in the shoulder by Gabe with the bolt gun and blasted with the shotgun by Hal. This was changed to Gabe firing the gun three times, not due to censorship but because a review of the dailies caused the filmmakers to think of a somewhat slicker death.
The film was a box office hit. For its British cinema release, the film was cut by over a minute, then by a further 16 seconds on video and DVD to gain a '15' certificate. Chief victim was the scene where Delmar beats up Tucker, but other cuts included aggressive strong language and other moments of violence. However, the 2008 DVD release was passed '15' with no cuts made.
The scene where Hal's girlfriend, Sarah, falls to her death, was spoofed in the films Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and Spy Hard.
Around 1994, TriStar Pictures planned to make a sequel of the film titled The Dam (or Cliffhanger 2: The Dam), which would have Stallone's character Gabe Walker fighting against terrorists who took over Hoover Dam, but it never went beyond development stage. In 2008, once again there were plans to make this sequel, and even Stallone was interested, but it was cancelled.
In May 2009, it was announced that StudioCanal would be overseeing a remake of Cliffhanger. Neal H. Moritz was set to produce, with filming due to begin in 2010. In May 2014, Joe Gazzam was set to write the script for the film.
In 2015 on his official Instagram Stallone stated he would love to make a sequel to Cliffhanger, which puts doubt on whether a reboot will actually happen.