The 1970s saw Hollywood’s first disaster boom with such classics as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure filling the theatres, but in the 90s, with the advent of computer effects, a second and bigger disaster boom was in the offing. In the 90s, films like Twister, Dante’s Peak, and Armageddon made some serious box office dough, but one particular disaster film didn’t do all that well and has mostly been forgotten. Rob Cohen’s Daylight is a film that didn’t rely on nature’s fury so much as a man-made disaster, and that may have been its undoing.
The basic premise of Daylight is that a shady waste management company tries to illegally transport barrels of toxic waste through the Holland Tunnel and onto New Jersey, but when a car full of jewel thieves is chased by the police into the tunnel and collides with this convoy of toxic cargo-carrying trucks, the ensuing explosion causes the tunnel to collapse and our cast of characters to be trapped. As premises go, this is not a bad one at all, and the shots of the massive firestorm rolling down the tunnel are visually spectacular. Unfortunately, that is pretty much the best element of the movie. We get a nice set-up with a fantastic cataclysmic event full of disaster eye-candy, but after that, we get your standard disaster slog as we are then forced to follow a small band of survivors as they attempt to escape almost certain death.
As is standard for disaster films of this variety, the first act is all about introducing us to the characters that we will be following throughout this particular crisis — if this film was made in the 70s, the movie poster would have had little pictures at the bottom touting stars like Paul Newman and Charlton Heston as “The Architect” — and in the case of Daylight, we have quite the plethora of cannon fodder, though a little less star-studded then their 70s equivalent. First, we have struggling playwright Madelyne “Maddy” Thompson (Amy Brenneman), who after getting another rejection letter decides to leave her rat- and roach-infested apartment and go back home. In the O.J. Simpson role, we have George Tyrell (Stan Shaw), a transit cop who hasn’t yet told the woman he’s involved with that he loves her.
We also get an elderly couple and their deceased son’s dog, a bus-load of juvenile delinquents being transferred just so we can widen the cast demographic a bit, and because disasters are known for shoring up bad relationships, we also have Steven Crighton (Jay O. Sanders), a family man taking his wife and daughter to New York in the hopes of patching up his strained marriage. Finally, we have Roy Nord (Viggo Mortensen), a rich sports celebrity known for his extreme sports endeavours and showy commercials.
Now, any good disaster movie needs a hero and in this film that comes in the form of Chief Kit Latura (Sylvester Stallone), a disgraced former New York City Emergency Medical Services captain who now drives a cab and just so happens to be on the scene when the shit hits the fan. It should be noted that in Cliffhanger, Stallone played a man who quit his mountain rescue career due to a failure that resulted in a death and now we have him playing an ex-EMS captain whose last rescue resulted in a death and a change of vocation. That is very specific typecasting if I do say so myself. What really fails here, and makes absolutely no sense, is that almost everyone he is trying to save in this movie is constantly giving him shit. He’s not some hapless slob who just so happened to be caught up in the disaster along with everyone else, he willingly climbed down — through spinning fans that looked like levels out of a bad video game — to save this bunch of ungrateful asshats.
And because raging fires and flooding tunnels isn’t enough drama, we are also briefly introduced to some evil city bureaucrats who want to write off the survivors as being dead so that they can get to work on repairing the tunnel — they give some kind of bullshit about the tunnel being a vital artery to the city as if this kind of destruction wouldn’t have the Holland Tunnel out of commission for months. This bit of manufactured drama serves absolutely no purpose as the “ticking clock” element of the tunnel flooding had already provided enough motivation for our cast of characters to make their way out sans help from above. Speaking of the flooding tunnels, if a ragtag group of survivors racing to stay ahead of their rising water sounds familiar, that would be because it’s also the basic premise of Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure, and this similarity is made even more hilarious when you consider the fact that the script of Daylight was a rewrite of an early draft of what was to be a sequel to Irwin Allen’s disaster classic.
As disaster films go, Daylight is a fair to middling entry, for when it comes to the disaster itself, the movie starts with an impressive and explosive sequence, but then the remaining three-quarters of the film is a soggy mess, which is the death of a proper disaster movie. And aside from Amy Brenneman’s plucky playwright, I couldn’t care less if any of them made it out of that tunnel alive. Those flooding tunnels had more depth than Sly’s cliché hero with a tacked-on tragic past.
Audiences turn up for spectacle when it comes to this particular genre and Rob Cohen’s Daylight started promising but then it got bogged down with the same run-of-the-mill tropes that plague many of its brethren, and this pretty much doomed the movie from inception. There are certainly worse examples of the genre, but there’s a reason why this one is mostly forgotten.
Movie Rank - 6/10
It’s nice that Daylight used a fair amount of practical effects in this disaster outing but sadly it was too top-heavy and the cast of rather unlikable characters were never quite able to keep one interested in their survival.