Breathtaking, But Brain Dead -- Logic Missing In Stallone's `Cliffhanger'

XX "Cliffhanger," with Sylvester Stallone, Janine Turner, Michael Rooker, John Lithgow. Directed by Renny Harlin, from a screenplay by Michael France and Sylvester Stallone. Oak Tree, Lewis & Clark, City Centre, Factoria, Kent 6, Kirkland Parkplace, Aurora Village, Alderwood, Valley 6, Gateway 8, Everett 9. "R" - Restricted because of violence, profanity. ------------------------------------------------------------------- "Cliffhanger" resembles the old stereotype about heavyweight boxers and defensive linebackers. It's physically impressive, requires huge amounts of resources (reportedly $70 million) to sustain itself, is the product of considerable training and discipline, moves with noteworthy speed . . . and has the intelligence of a Presto-Log.

The fact that so much money was lavished on such a thick-headed project represents the height of fiscal ineptitude, but this is the kind of roller-coaster ride for which eager audiences will gladly check their brains at the turnstiles, so go figure.

In a plot that could be summarized on a postage stamp, Sylvester Stallone plays an expert mountaineer who, after failing to prevent the death of a fellow climber, goes into a major funk and quits his post on the Rocky Mountain Rescue Team, losing his nerve and his girlfriend/colleague ("Northern Exposure's" Janine Turner) in the process.

Just when our hero needs an opportunity to regain all he's lost, a band of nasties led by Eurotrash villain John Lithgow hijacks a jet carrying $100 million in cash being transferred by the Denver branch of the U.S. Treasury.

When the hijacking goes sour, Lithgow & Co. abduct Stallone and his climbing pal (Michael Rooker) to retrieve the three cases of big bucks that have landed in the treacherous Rockies. From there it's a race for the cash because Rooker, Stallone and Turner are only useful as long as they can guide Lithgow to the money. After that they're dog meat.

This film exists only to thread together a series of "breathtaking" action sequences that seem to deliberately avoid logic. It's the kind of film in which an idiot villain will fire into a tenuous snowbank, causing the avalanche that kills him, and in which Stallone emerges from an ice cave at precisely the spot where a villain just happens to be waiting. Hmmm . . . just what are the odds of that, I wonder? And won't that pointy stalactite come in handy when Sly has to dispatch the guy?

You've got to reluctantly admire the gutsiness that took director Renny Harlin ("Die Hard 2") into the Italian Alps, where his daring crew risked life and limb for a few good thrills. But the sheer physicality of this production (which doesn't hold a candle to the climbing sequences in the IMAX movie "To The Limit") means nothing without a genuinely stimulating story.

Remove the thematic depth and psychological complexity that David Lean brought to "Lawrence of Arabia" and it would be far more difficult to appreciate Freddie Young's stunning cinematography. Likewise, even an action movie must engage the common sense that "Cliffhanger" neglects, or we will return its disrespect for our intelligence.

The grand finale is awesome and silly at the same time, and Lithgow indulges his best campy badness since "Buckaroo Banzai," stealing the best of the clunky dialogue that was heavily rewritten by Stallone. But with end credits that run for nearly 7 minutes, "Cliffhanger" has recruited an army of Hollywood's finest technicians for what amounts to a barely adequate skirmish.