Descend in the Clowns

Seems like everywhere you look these days, something's falling. America has fallen on hard times. The dollar has fallen in value against the yen. President Clinton's approval rating, SAT scores, GNP, consumer confidence A falling, falling, falling, falling. Everywhere you look, standards are dropping, heroes are backsliding, institutions are toppling. Falling has become a national obsession, the metaphor du jour.

We've fallen and we can't get up.
Of course Hollywood had to jump on the bandwagon. Falling Down laid it all out right there in the title. Indecent Proposal showed us how things fall apart for people who have fallen in love when morality falls by the wayside. Now we have a pair of films, Cliffhanger and Guilty As Sin, that take the act of falling literally.

In Guilty as Sin, Don Johnson plays David Greenhill, a suave lady-killer A literally and figuratively. Greenhill is a self-described gigolo whose rich wife has recently fallen to her death. The police suspect Greenhill but they can't find him. Ironically (and preposterously), he's been in court every day, studying crackerjack defense attorney Jennifer Haines at work. Rebecca DeMornay imbues the role of the urbane, cerebral, up-and-coming barrister with all the sophistication of a streetwalker. It's hard to stifle a laugh when she approaches the jury in a form-fitting dress and pumps, her hips shimmying like Marilyn Monroe's after a few drinks. You half expect the judge to order some fries to go with that shake. Casting director Lynn Stalmaster and producer Martin Ransohoff should be shot for even considering DeMornay for the part.

Greenhill bullies his way into Haines's office and tries to persuade her to represent him. He swears that he didn't commit the murder. She doesn't believe him at first, but eventually she talks herself into it. Big mistake, as anyone in the audience could have told her. Greenhill is accustomed to having rich women fall all over him, and he tries hard to make Haines fall for him as well A too hard. His efforts fall short.

But surprisingly, Don Johnson deserves little of the blame. Johnson has, of course, played lady-killers before, but never literally. As a gigolo, he's no Richard Gere, but he has a few good misogynist moments and gets off one or two funny lines. And he makes an entertaining (if not very convincing) villain. His acting ability may yet catch up with his looks, which have yet to desert him. Unfortunately, a few more stinkers like this and his career may be dead long before his skills have had a chance to develop. Then again, he survived Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man.

While there is no shortage of candidates for the "stupidest miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers" award in Guilty as Sin, letting the audience in on Greenhill's guilt too early is the easy winner. The revelation defuses any suspense the first half of the movie may have hoped to generate. How did this supposedly sharp-witted lawyer get to be such a hotshot if any fool can see what a creep her client is light years before she figures it out?

And what would Roy Black think of a defense attorney who can get anyone acquitted, but who cannot induce the court to dismiss her from a case she really doesn't want to handle? One can't help but suspect the man who got Lozano off would have found a way out. But not Jennifer Haines. She's the sorriest excuse for an attorney since Jethro represented himself in an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. By the time she begins to piece together Greenhill's hidden agenda, the jury has already bought her defense of him. He baits one obvious trap after another, all of which the brilliant attorney clumsily falls into. It's ludicrous (not as ludicrous as DeMornay's casting, but ludicrous nonetheless). Director Sidney Lumet, who has, in the past, demonstrated a flair for courtroom drama (12 Angry Men, The Verdict), should have known better. How the mighty have fallen.

While Cliffhanger is no more plausible than Guilty as Sin, it is a lot more entertaining. There's more falling and less talk, for one thing. And when people fall in this movie, they really fall. It just goes to show you what $70 million can buy if you don't squander it on extravagances like plausible screenplays. You're talking shiny airplanes, helicopters, aerial acrobatics, dramatic camera angles, explosions, avalanches, and daredevil stunts. Not to mention a trip to Italy for the entire cast and crew.

Director Renny Harlin proved that he knows how to blow up toys with the best of them in Die Hard 2: Die Harder. The formula here is pretty much the same. Keep things moving at all costs. Never give the audience time to think. Have your heroes working against bombs with timers whenever possible. The more cartoonlike your main villain, the better (John Lithgow's turn as Cliffhanger's chief scoundrel is outlandish, low camp). A female lead should always be moderately resourceful but ultimately should exist only as a pawn, a means by which the heartless villain can put the screws to the sympathetic hero.

In Die Harder Harlin had Bruce Willis, who, love him or hate him, has a personality. In Cliffhanger Harlin is saddled with Sylvester Stallone. As the drama unfolds amid snow-covered Rocky Mountain peaks (the filmmakers opted to shoot on location in the Italian Alps), the director must have had to work overtime to come up with a way to feature the iron-pumping narcissist with his shirt off. (For the record, Harlin and Stallone not only find an excuse for the actor to appear topless in a scene, they also find a way to isolate him in a wet T-shirt for several minutes.)

The premise, in case you haven't figured it out from the trailer or the ad campaign, is pretty basic: Stallone and a half-dozen bad guys get stranded in some really craggy mountains and try to kill each other. Lots of people tumble off cliffs. Guess who survives.

The scariest element of the whole project is that it took three people to write this film. Even more frighteningly, one of those people was Stallone. Consequently, the bad guys are all sadists, the women are either helpless dead weight (Janine Turner) or ruthless bitches (Caroline Goodall), and the heroes (Stallone is not alone) get knocked around a lot before emerging triumphant when it counts. (Stallone is really into this S&M thing. Remember how Rambo got electrocuted and then dipped in excrement? His male leads always have to get the tar kicked out of them by some bloodthirsty animal so that they can earn the right to strike back.) Subtlety is not Stallone's (or, for that matter, Harlin's) strong suit.

It's pointless to criticize acting and dialogue in films of this ilk. You either get off on the treacherous stunts and breathtaking vistas or you don't. After all, one doesn't visit Disney World for the casinos. Stallone's name is right there in the ad copy, above the title. Caveat emptor, and all that.

The bottom line is that in spite of the stupidity, the implausibility, the bad acting, the weak characterization, and the dumbspeak, people, even jaded movie critics, are going to walk out of the theater wondering, "How'd they do that?


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