Stuck between ASSASSINS, which is fun but not very good, and COP LAND, which absolutely rules, there is DAYLIGHT, Stallone’s big disaster film. Directed by the usually serviceable but rarely exciting Rob Cohen, DAYLIGHT does exactly what it supposed to do with the disaster film template. There just isn’t a whole lot of urgency to it. A bunch of people get stuck in the Holland Tunnel and only Stallone can get them out. Well, most of them out. It’s not aliens or asteroids or global warming, sticking instead to a more grounded and believable threat.
It’s a good idea, and I think DAYLIGHT would have been a bigger deal had it come out a few years earlier. In 1996, it had a feeling of “been there, done that” about it. Revisiting it in 2020, however, there is a lot more to appreciate, especially when it comes to its practical effects. There are some really fun explosions in this one.
In keeping with disaster film protocol, we start the film by meeting a group of people from all walks of life who will later count on each other to survive. I’d say the best of the group, even including Stallone, is Viggo Mortensen’s X Games CEO type guy Roy Nord. It’s a very non-Viggo role. Though he’s cool and calm, that comes from ego and false confidence rather than real skill. You can tell because he has bad hair and a suit two sizes too big. It’s safe to assume he’s either going to be a villain or the first person to die. He ends up being the first person to die. DAYLIGHT doesn’t have any villains besides maybe a little bureaucracy.
We also have an old couple with a cute dog, and a family reunited after a bad affair situation that is supposed to inject them with more character than they probably need. We have a truck full of convicts (one played by Sage Stallone), a cop who is about to propose to his girlfriend (not a lot of people die in this film, but this guy is marked from his first minute), and our kind of love interest Maddy, played by Amy Brenneman. Maddy’s one of those characters whose life is a disaster. You’re supposed to feel bad for her, but they go real overboard with it and you end up thinking she’s just super dumb instead.
All these folks end up under the Holland Tunnel just as a group of thugs straight out of DEATH WISH 3 hijack a car and drive it into a bunch of toxic waste disposal trucks. They all explode in a truly remarkable cinematic firestorm and our movie gets going. While the firestorm is great looking, it’s also a bit confusing because it engulfs all the cars in the tunnel but manages to not kill our survivors. I guess because they had their windows up. Or maybe they were all driving Volvos, I forgot to look.
Stallone’s Kit Latura is not in the tunnel. He finds himself just outside of it and immediately starts saving days all over the place. We learn he used to be - and hold your breath for this one - the New York City Emergency Medical Services Chief, but a scandal lost him his job so now he’s just a cabbie. Of course, once he starts showing real leadership among fools, they reinstate him. It goes like this - Stallone to cop: "Where’s the chief?" Awestruck cop to Stallone: "Standing right in front of me, as far as I’m concerned." Later, when Kit gears up, his vest even has his last name on it.
Dan Hedaya and his crew of idiots want to do some drastic shit to the tunnel, but Stallone thinks there might be survivors and won’t give up on them. Which means someone has to into the tunnel to help them. They all compare muscles, and of course Stallone wins.
His entrance counts as a set piece but the film really goes out of its way to make it dramatic. Stallone has limited time to get through one big fan, then down through three smaller fans. Once stopped they will all start up again quickly and chop him to bits. He really just has to slip through the blades and has plenty of time, but each fan is a problem for him to arbitrarily raise tension.
Eventually he gets in there with the survivors and… has no real plan. I guess his idea is to check things out and hope some genius idea will come to him, which they do over and over again but only at the last possible second. It goes like that until the film ends.
Not everyone makes it to the end, however. DAYLIGHT has a real unwillingness to kill characters. Viggo gets it for hubris, so we don't feel bad for him. The cop, however, suffers a broken back. Everyone bands together to save him and it’s very inspiring. But later, when their next step requires an underwater passage, they just dump his ass. It is a very strange move. I mean, it’s kind of believable but it’s not the sort of thing movies usually show us. We don’t even see him die. He’s just abandoned and forgotten about. The film’s next death takes an older lady who literally dies while sitting up, killed by sadness. She just gives up and dies. It’s wild.
DAYLIGHT is a little too weak for me in term of being a disaster film, but it’s suddenly Shakespeare through the lens of a Stallone film. He’s great in this. Obviously, there is no traditional action and all his muscle flexing is reserved for dangling and lifting things. His main contribution is looking sad while getting yelled at and offering motivation to people who are yelling at him. He’s not quite an everyman, he’s way too strong and noble for that (he even saves the dog!), but the situation forces him to at least look like an everyman, albeit one who understands the situation better than anyone else because of a terrorism simulation he ran two years before. But they don’t go too far with that either. Yes, it’s strange in terms of Hollywood filmmaking, but Stallone getting into that tunnel with no real plan to save himself or the survivors helps make his character truly feel in over his head.
The film wasn’t a huge bomb, but it wasn’t a massive success either and for a guy like Stallone, that’s still a failure. His leading man decline was already in force here. It would get worse before it got better, and when it got better Stallone was playing an old man in 2006’s ROCKY BALBOA. Of all the ‘80s muscle-heads, Stallone was the best actor, but he also ran away from the films that would best utilize that. I like those films a lot, but I also wonder if it was worth it. I don’t think Arnold or Dolph Lundgren or JCVD could actually act until they got much older. Stallone could have been doing it the whole time, and it's a bummer he didn't.