Die Hard Rescued One Of Sylvester Stallone's Best Films From Disaster

Director Renny Harlin's "Cliffhanger" is a quintessential '90s action movie. The right movie at the right time, it is one of the few true breakout action flicks starring Sylvester Stallone that's not connected to "Rocky," "Rambo," or "The Expendables." It's a lean, fun, crowd-pleasing thriller that features John Lithgow in a great villain performance (a villain role that almost went to David Bowie) and remains a product of its time in the best of ways. It also might not have happened at all had "Die Hard" not become a huge success a handful of years earlier.

In a 2023 20th anniversary retrospective in The Telegraph, it's explained that "Cliffhanger" started with co-producer Gene Hines, who saw a TV show about mountain climbers in the mid-'80s. "That got him interested in the world of climbing," said co-producer Jim Zatolokin. "It's a dynamic and unique world with a lot of characters." So they set about gathering research to build a possible movie. The problem? It was hard to find a compelling story. As Zatolokin explained:

"It's an exciting sport, but not terribly exciting to watch. For a long time, it was difficult to figure out how to turn climbing into an action-adventure film. Die Hard was around at that time, and the concept became 'Die Hard on the mountain.'"

And there it was. Director John McTiernan's "Die Hard" was such a big, influential hit in 1988 that Hollywood ended up making an entire subgenre of action movies that were doing the same thing in a different setting. Among these many, many "Die Hard" rip-offs are "Under Siege" ("Die Hard" on a battleship) and "The Rock" ("Die Hard" in a prison). Some of these movies are very good. Some of them are not. But this era of rip-offs provided a real idea for Hines and Zatolokin to explore.

Cliffhanger benefits from a '90s action movie trend

"Cliffhanger" centers on Gabe (Stallone), who is reeling after failing to rescue an inexperienced climber on a mountain. He is pulled back into help when a group of climbers are said to be lost, only to discover that the distress call he received is actually a trap set by an international terrorist named Eric Qualen (Lithgow). Millions of dollars are at stake, and multiple lives are at risk.

Interestingly enough, Harlin had previously directed "Die Hard 2" ("Die Hard" at an airport) before being brought on board to helm what Zatolokin called "'Die Hard' on a mountain." The producers brought on climber and writer John Long to write up the treatment for the film, with the script ultimately credited to Stallone and Michael France, who would go on to write other blockbusters such as "GoldenEye" and Ang Lee's "Hulk."

In the end, the schtick worked like gangbusters. The film hit theaters in the summer of '93 and proved to be a smash hit, pulling in $255 million at the global box office against a $65 million budget. Because everything old is new again, Stallone is set to return as Gabe Walker in a new "Cliffhanger" movie to be directed by Ric Roman Waugh ("Angel Has Fallen"). It's all thanks to Bruce Willis and one of the greatest action movies ever made.