Daylight, the 1996 film from screenwriter Leslie Bohem and director Rob Cohen, should not be this bad of a movie. It’s the perfect vehicle for its star, and does absolutely nothing wrong in following the Irwin Allen disaster movie playbook. It’s swift and action-packed, and there’s enough tension that it should be able to keep a viewer’s attention. But, the characters. My God, the characters.
Sylvester Stallone stars as former New York City EMS chief Kit Latura. He’s a former chief because a year before the events in this film take place, he was involved in a rescue of some sort that left some people dead, and he took the fall. Now he’s a poorly dressed limo driver. Don’t cry for Latura, however. He will soon get his chance for redemption.
That’s because a shady company has decided to drive truckloads of flammable toxic waste from the city to an illegal dumping site in New Jersey. In a fit of Hollywood geography, this requires driving through the Holland tunnel. Personally, I think they would have been better off taking the BQE, but if they’re determined to sit in a traffic jam on Canal St. that’s none of my business.
Meanwhile, some punks (really, punks) rob a diamond merchant and steal his car. Pursued by police, they decide to dive into the Holland tunnel and make a run for New Jersey. They cause a spectacular high-speed collision in the tunnel, causing the wicked stuff in the trucks to explode. A wall of flame blows through the length of the tunnel, causing a collapse and sealing any survivors inside.
Those survivors are the regular motley bunch one gets from a flick like this. It’s a diverse group, each character having a unique backstory that is supposed to provide depth. There’s extreme sports star turned business executive Roy Nord (Viggo Mortensen), a struggling screenwriter named Maddy (Amy Brenneman), an aging Upper East Side married couple (Colin Fox and Claire Bloom), a family suffering because of the infidelities of the father (Jay O. Sanders, Karen Young, and scream queen Danielle Harris), some juvenile prisoners freed from an overturned prison bus (Sage Stallone, amongst others), and…you know, it doesn’t matter. Each one of these characters, and more, is introduced to the viewer before things go bad in the tunnel. They all have detailed histories hinted at in their introductions, and not a whit of it matters to the film. Cohen could have waited to show any of these characters until the disaster in the tunnel begins and it would have made no difference to the progression of the plot.
What it would have done is spare us viewers some of the time we have to spend with these people. I don’t know what kind of mood Bohem was in when he penned this screenplay, but however he felt, he ended up saddling this movie with an entire cast of characters that is unlikable. With the exception of Sly. His character is all good. He’s competent, motivated, optimistic, and willing to risk all to save these unredeemable characters from horrible deaths. Too bad he’s not the chief anymore.
That won’t stop this film!
Sly happened to be at the tunnel entrance when the explosion happened, and through some twists and turns, ends up being the guy sent down into the tunnel to lead those trapped inside to safety. They can’t go back up the way Sly came in, of course. That would be too easy. Before rescue (don’t pretend it won’t happen — this is a Hollywood flick, not some depressing French film), Sly and the others see hope snatched away from them multiple times.
The tunnel set, full of smoke, flames, and rising water, is fairly impressive. By 1996, Independence Day had raised the bar for disaster films. There are no exploding White Houses or Empire State Buildings in this film, but when compared with earlier disaster films like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure, the sets in this film hew closer to reality (ignoring, of course, the effects of toxic fumes and a fire that would eat all the oxygen in the tunnel). The sets don’t have any of the funhouse or amusement park feel that could ruin suspension of disbelief in those earlier films. It’s a big help for this film that real effort and expense were put into the production. It’s too bad all of it was ruined by a script full of people with awful attitudes.
If one were to dig into this film in a deeper and more cynical fashion, it could be said that these characters represent the injustices that were heaped on Latura after he was bounced from his job. They are all pessimists, with Latura screaming and pounding just to be heard against the negativity. Kit Latura is right, dammit, and he will drag everyone in this film kicking and screaming to the promised land.
Daylight has its moments, but for the most part, it’s pure mediocrity. It seems like Cohen was still cutting his teeth as an action director with this film. Some five years later, he launched both the Fast and Furious and xXx franchises. All the things that are annoying about those films are on full display here, only he hadn’t yet figured out how to mix things up enough to produce a winner. For my part, I hope this is the last time I’ve seen Daylight. Alien: Resurrection has more likable characters than Daylight. And they both have Dan Hedaya!