By Owen Gleiberman
June 11, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

As the first ballyhooed ”ride” of the season, CLIFFHANGER (R), starring Sylvester Stallone as the Rambo of the Rockies, reminds you why these post- Raiders of the Lost Ark action fantasies are always described as roller coasters. It’s not just that they revel in speed, noise, outrageous thrills- Cliffhanger certainly provides all those things-but that their relentless kinetic thrust has no real logic, no narrative ebb and flow; we’re simply invited to strap ourselves in and surrender judgment. A violent, zap-a-minute thriller set in the spectacular Colorado Rockies (though much of it was actually filmed in the Italian Alps), Cliffhanger contains a few moments of lyrical, pulse-quickening vertigo, but it’s also packed with beatings, knifings, impalings, shootings, explosions. At one point Stallone is roughed up as badly as Rocky ever was-each punch lands with an apocalyptic thwack-and before that his partner (Michael Rooker) gets the same pounding treatment. Despite the don’t-look-down Olympian settings, Cliffhanger’s spirit is brutal and earthbound. The movie is like one of those computer-designed simulator rides that whip you around until you’re dizzy and aching but don’t actually take you anywhere. It’s Die Hard V at 13,000 feet. A crew of thieves, led by-what else?-a psychotic British mastermind (John Lithgow), hijack a U.S. Treasury cargo jet and abscond with $100 million. When their small plane crash-lands, leaving several money-filled suitcases scattered in the wintry mountains, they call the Rocky Mountain Rescue Team and are met by two of its veteran climbers. Gabe Walker (Stallone) and Hal Tucker (Rooker) used to be friends, but they haven’t spoken in months-ever since Walker, in the film’s stupendously scary opening sequence, tried to save Tucker’s girlfriend from falling to her death. The two men are ordered, at gunpoint, to retrieve the lost cash. But Walker escapes, and he and the thieves commence a lethal game of cat and mouse amid the peaks, caves, forests, and deliriously plunging cliffs of the Rockies. The stolen-loot business is, of course, little more than an excuse to get Stallone and his foes up in the mountains. Once they’re there, director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) stages some amazing sequences. There’s one dizzying climax in which Stallone is whipped through the air on a long, springy metal ladder, finally battling Lithgow atop a helicopter that’s jammed into the side of a cliff. At its best, Cliffhanger has the enjoyable preposterousness of the Roger Moore James Bond films. Still, I couldn’t help wondering why Harlin barely even tried to match the elegant, realistic terror of that perilous opening sequence. Cliffhanger delivers its quota of thrills, but too much of the movie is devoted to the sort of kick-ass set pieces that would have worked just as well in urban alleyways as on mountaintops. This is a cliffhanging suspense film that doesn’t exploit our fear of heights as much as our fear of getting blown away by machine-gun fire. As the evil Qualen, Lithgow seems to be doing an impression of Anthony Hopkins. He’s amusing in a predictable way, though he does have one shockingly nasty moment, bumping off his most devoted crew member with a hair-trigger malice that’s so nonchalant it’s funny. The ragtag script (credited to Stallone and Michael France) fails to establish the other villains-or, for that matter, the heroic Walker-as anything more than monosyllabic ciphers. Fortunately, that strategy works just fine for Stallone. He may not be a wizard at delivering his lines, but for an action star he has a wonderfully expressive face-that parrot mouth curled in defiance, the dark, burnished eyes that somehow manage to make macho rage seem sensitive. Here, as in Rambo: First Blood Part II series, it’s exhilarating to behold the speed and sheer balletic confidence with which Stallone swings his overly-muscled body around. Like Rambo, Cliffhanger seems to put him in the middle of a kamikaze fitness workout. He leaps, climbs, and runs; he uses one of the villains as a human toboggan; he gets into an epic scuffle with another baddie (this one played by the black actor known simply as Leon, whom the movie tastelessly turns into a bloody-mouthed savage) and skewers him on a stalactite. Some may find the sheer relentlessness of Cliffhanger a big kick. Yet the movie would have been more fun had Harlin utilized the nooks and crannies of the mountaintop setting with greater ingenuity, doing more to turn the Rockies into the world’s most intricate and treacherous jungle gym. A lot of the staging seems arbitrary: When it’s time for another fight, Harlin simply sticks two enemies on the same peak, without a care as to how they got there. In spatial-logistical terms, the film makes almost no sense (Die Hard, for all its bombast, did). Then again, a roller coaster doesn’t really have to make sense. It just has to keep moving. B-