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THE operative word for "Cliffhanger" was supposed to be "wow." Or, translated into comic book euphemism, "holy geez." (Or, as cub reporter Jimmy Olson used to say a few decades ago, "jeepers.") This mind-numbing and mind-boggling mountain climbing thriller marks the official beginning of Summer Blockbuster Season.

"Great things are done when men and mountains meet./ This is not done by jostling in the street." That's William Blake's view of the subject. Sylvester Stallone's in "Cliffhang-er" is simpler still: "Whadya say we take off and leave this cloud behind, huh?"

Let's be frank here. I've been pulling for old Sly, despite his insane paychecks (a couple, I believe, were for $25 million -- enough to finance two superb independent films, maybe even three). For one thing, he has a wickedly funny, self-deprecating sense of humor in interviews -- not that you'd ever know it from "Oscar" and "Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot." For another, he's a perfectly agreeable action-movie star. If all you need is an active guy with a lot of large protein bumps all over his body, Sly's your guy. He can look good pretending to do all manner of crazy macho things until it comes time for him to go into his trailer for a round of backgammon and let his stunt double actually do them.

You don't want to burden Sly with, say, Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man" speech or Lucky's Joycean explosion in "Waiting for Godot." But if you keep the lingo on a simple, animatronic level, he's just fine as a fellow who battles hijackers in the snowbound Rockies. (Actually, in a different movie era, he might have been much better than that. It's interesting to speculate what might have happened if his megalomania had never been watered and fed and if Elia Kazan, in his prime, had gotten hold of him. He'd never have been Brando, true, but with a little intensive speech work, he might have had a shot at Anthony Quinn.)

The cliffs and vistas and chasms in "Cliffhanger" are a Rocky Mountain High. The script (co-written by Stallone, heaven help us) is a cloudland low. Average it out to a nice evening on the mezzanine. It's truly awe-inspiring dumbness in service to the greatest production designer of them all (the mountainscapes -- filmed actually in the Alps -- are breathtaking).

"Cliffhanger," like the Spielberg/Lucas Indiana Jones movies, is a modern swipe at the old movie serials from Republic and even lesser studios, though the quality of writing is immeasurably worse. Some of the macho talk at the beginning would be rejected by the producers of "Rescue 911" or "Baywatch" (or, as it's affectionately known in the trade, "Babewatch"). All your old favorites are here -- the airplane pilot who screams: "We're losing altitude! We're going down!"; the potential rescuee on a 5,000-foot tower of stone who asks rescuer Sly, "We're on for dinner, right?," thereby indicating a better-than-even shot of becoming macaroni salad before the scene is over.

Then, as Sly the Mountain Man par excellence goes to work, there are all those developments that make note-taking easy: AVALANCHE! BATS! GUANO! WOLVES! THIN ICE! BAD GUYS TURNED INTO HUMAN SLEDS!

Stallone is the climber to end all climbers. John Lithgow is the sneering bad guy, with an English accent so wretched he must have borrowed it from Master Thespian. Janine Turner of "Northern Exposure" fame is the usual flying spunk-bunny with a pageboy haircut. Compared to her feisty, witty dialogue on "Northern Exposure," this stuff must have seemed like a recitation in remedial reading class. (Except for the original "Rocky," almost every script Stallone touches turns to stone, and not Sharon, either.)

Director Renny Harlin of "Die Harder" fame and "Ford Fairlane" ignominy is an action specialist. It's basement-level movie excitement but, by God, it's real. It's quite mean and violent at times, which confused the little guy I sat next to by happenstance. He tried to maintain his wise-guy, 7-year-old bravado through it all, but his parents probably should have been advised that it's rated R for good reason. Despite his attempts to put on his movie face and act tough, some of the sadism clearly rocked him a little.


Rating: * * * 1/2 Sylvester Stallone and Janine Turner fight hijackers in the Rockies.< Co-written by Stallone; directed by Renny Harlin. Rated R, opening today in area theaters.

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