FILM / Climb ev'ry cliche: Cliffhanger (15); Innocent Blood (15); The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea (18)

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A FEW minutes into Sylvester Stallone's mountain-rescue drama Cliffhanger (15) we see two giant slabs of rock jutting up like a good old British V-sign: it's as if nature is taunting man. The theme is taken up in one of the few scenes at base camp. Ralph Waites's wizened old helicopter pilot (so genial we know he's doomed) is painting a smear of yellows and browns, like an art-school Jackson Pollock. 'It's a banana eating a monkey - nature in reverse,' he announces. Cliffhanger doesn't get very far with this elemental struggle, because all the time there's another battle going on, as old as the movies, between stunning technology and crummy script.

If the special effects - digital erasing of guy-ropes from the picture; model photography that dovetails with location shots - are state of the art, the script is state of the Ark. The plot consists of two old stand-bys roped precariously together, rather like the planes between which a gang of terrorists pass suitcases containing dollars 100m as they fly over the Rockies. Stallone plays a rescuer eating his heart out over a girl's death-fall, blaming himself. When the mid-air heist goes wrong he races the baddies to the money: a cliff-face-off between good and evil. You sit back and nod at old favourites you thought you'd never hear again: 'We'll get some sleep - we're gonna need it,' or, 'Hand over the money and I'll just kill you and not the girl.'

Stallone sold out so long ago it's hard to buy into his vulnerability act, though the strangely sensitive face, with its long lashes and hooded eyes, and the spirited slur of a voice are still assets. His squat, muscle-bound limbs, packed into shorts and vest, make him more of a cyclist than a mountaineer, but his climbing has the right jerky doggedness. His adversary - a criminal mastermind and turncoat colonel, as ever - is John Lithgow, whose broad brow and piggy eyes condemn him to screen villainy. In Raising Cain he was a killer with a multiple personality. That was better than here, where he hasn't even got one personality - just a strangled English accent and standard baddie-nage. Too slow and pudgy to be a top terrorist, he comes over as a testy don on a hiking holiday.

The problem for director Renny Harlin is portraying a vertical drama in a horizontal medium: he must have wished the screen could be turned on its side. For all the swirling, wide-angle photography, we feel no vertigo. Harlin, who showed he could blow up a plane with the best of them in Die Hard 2, compensates by varying the scale: from a rough-and-tumble that toboggans towards the cliff's edge to a cramped scrap under the stalactites (put to piercing use). We're constantly being surprised, and, until the last few minutes, where it all descends into head-kicking and name-calling, we're just about gripped.

John Landis is a wonderfully generous director. He often seems like a slap-happy chef, bunging in ingredients as he pleases - though with his taste for terror, he's less cordon bleu than cordon sanitaire. In Innocent Blood (15), which can be seen as a companion-piece to Landis's An American Werewolf in London, he gives us vampirism, Mafiosi, car-chases, Hitchcock and Dracula movies, a pumping soundtrack of Fifties classics and a glimpse of Dan Quayle. The vampire is played by Anne Parillaud, who in her American debut displays the danger that got her there: the coiled menace of her reformed psychotic in Nikita. Pouncing at her prey - usually men seeking a peck rather than a bite - she gives a tigerish roar, her eyes glowing like embers in traffic-light colours.

Landis's best work - American Werewolf in London and Into the Night - mixed social satire and nightmare. Innocent Blood is dark but also humorous and romantic. Parillaud attacks a Mafia capo (Robert Loggia), who turns bloodsucker. When he munches a henchman's neck, the hoods don't blink, as if they'd supped on too many horrors to notice. The young cop (Anthony LaPaglia) tracking the Mob, stalks the vampire and falls in love. Up to the final reel, Landis is at his assured best, sketching a frosty Pittsburgh with the same fluent, bold camera he turned on Chicago in The Blues Brothers, and rationing the gore. Then he lays on the mayhem, losing the thread. It's as if the reluctant auteur didn't see he was creating something classier than a slap-up.

The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea (18) is a bizarre comic essay on old age and vicarious sexual pleasure from French director Laurent Heynemann. It starts mystically, with a mighty clang, as con-woman Jeanne Moreau's walking stick smites the sea, but soon returns to earth, often earthiness. Each morning Moreau and a young beau (Luc Thuillier) walk through the waves lapping a Guadeloupe beach, to soothe her stiff limbs. Her tongue needs no loosening: she volleys abuse at her long-time partner in crime (Michel Serrault) - 'encephalitic jerk-off', 'dry-balled diplomat'. He answers fire with fire ('old sow', 'slut') or flattery ('my turtle dove with ashen feathers'). Their real hatred, you suspect, is of their ageing selves. The boy becomes part of the con team, and a symbol of their lost glamour. The film is worth seeing for Jeanne Moreau, who conveys the sadness of sexual defeat with sour wit.

For cinemas and times, please turn to the Sunday Review, page 94.

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