Masters Of Disaster is back and this week Jonathon Dabell takes a look at Daylight (1996), starring Sylvester Stallone and Amy Brenneman.
Way back in 1972, when the disaster genre was still relatively new, there was a small TV movie called Short Walk To Daylight, about eight survivors trapped in a New York subway following an earthquake who must find their way out. In Daylight, made almost 25 years later, a very similar plot is used albeit on a far grander scale. This time it isn’t an earthquake which causes the problem, but the basic framework of several survivors trying to escape from an underground tunnel following a catastrophe is much the same.
A freak accident in a road tunnel beneath the Hudson River, linking Manhattan with Jersey City, leaves both ends of the tunnel collapsed, hundreds of cars and commuters dead, and a handful of survivors trapped inside. Among those stuck in the tunnel are playwright Maddy Thompson (Amy Brenneman), celebrity mountaineer Roy Nord (Viggo Mortensen), elderly couple Roger and Eleanor Trilling (Colin Fox and Claire Bloom), and several others.
An ex-medic, Kit Latura (Sylvetser Stallone) – who now works as a cab driver after leaving the ambulance profession under a cloud of shame – witnesses the tunnel collapsing while driving towards its Manhattan end. With the emergency services seeing no safe way of getting men to the centre of the tunnel to help any survivors, Kit senses a chance to redeem himself… or die trying. He enters through a huge, unstable ventilation shaft but is cut off from returning the same way. Soon he finds the handful of survivors trapped within, but the water levels are rising and the tunnel is becoming increasingly unstable, meaning that they must race against time to find another way out.
The main problem with Daylight is that, essentially, it’s an $80 million movie set in a tunnel. There are only so many perils the script-writers can come up with in such a restrictive setting. Rising floodwaters and collapsing roofs aside, there’s not a lot left to justify the staggering amount of money thrown at the film.
The film’s attempts at character development are decent enough, but there’s a fundamental conflict going on here which continually hurts the film. On one hand, there’s the sense that the film wants to be a fascinating, intimate character study exploring the dynamics and emotions of the small group of survivors under these extraordinary circumstances. On the other, the studio want a big, epic-scale disaster movie full of explosions and fireballs and adrenaline-pumping heroics. A signal of the studio’s intent can be found in the casting of Stallone in a role originally envisaged for Nicholas Cage. Universal felt that Cage was too quirky and unique a character actor, and encouraged director Rob Cohen to seek the services of a muscular action-man like Stallone. While there’s nothing wrong with Stallone’s performance, his very presence in the film (plus the sizable budget) shows that the studio were shooting for fans of action and spectacle. Those seeking a real character study will find scant pickings here.
Stallone’s character is not entirely one-dimensional – he has past baggage and has his demons. But generally his back-story is the stuff of cliche, and the film is more concerned with showcasing his physical prowess and heroic status. Brenneman makes a fairly quirky female lead at least, but the film makes a major mistake in killing off its most antagonistic character too early. The notion of two strong characters at loggerheads is always a fascinating ingredient of the best disaster movies – consider Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine in The Poseidon Adventure, for example – but Daylight throws away the opportunity at too early a stage.
Despite all this, the film is not a total loss by any means. There’s something basically likable and old-fashioned about the movie, in spite of its flaws. It’s no classic – but it’s perfectly watchable on the level of simple spectacle. It’s just that it lacks any great depth or ambition – a time filler, in effect. Nothing more, nothing less.
MoM Rating: 5/10