Once you’ve seen Daylight, you’ve got to wonder: Why has Hollywood waited so long to set a contemporary disaster pic in a giant underwater tunnel? The Poseidon Adventure, to which this flashily expensive, thrill-deficient Sylvester Stallone vehicle owes its schematic blueprint, was perfect for the hot-pantsed, partying ’70s. But today, group activities on cruise ships are out; individuality and isolation are in. And if disaster is going to hit, victims are most likely to get struck in cars, connected only by the shared assumption that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

In Daylight, catastrophe quickly hits an unnamed tunnel linking Manhattan with New Jersey. Gone are the days of languid exposition, with each ensemble player receiving a generous intro. Now it’s yo! yo! yo! as director Rob Cohen (Dragonheart) sets up his pin-size characters and hustles them into their seat belts. There’s a struggling playwright (played by Amy Brenneman), a cocky yuppie athlete/businessman (Viggo Mortensen), a wealthy older couple devoted to their dog (Colin Fox and poor, wrung-out Claire Bloom wearing the matronly mantle of Shelley Winters), a bunch of prisoners in a transport vehicle, a noble black tunnel cop (Stan Shaw from Fried Green Tomatoes), etc.

Oh, right, and there’s also Stallone as Kit Latura (Balboa, Latura — where does this guy get his names?). Kit, a disgraced EMS worker (coworkers once died in a building he was trying to evacuate, and he was blamed), wears neatly casual chinos and sport shirts (action Sly is more believable in Rocky or Rambo wear). He speaks a lot of words, rapidly (action Sly does best when saying little). And he’s moonlighting as a livery driver when a carload of wired punk kids streaks recklessly through the tunnel and slams into a truck carrying explosives, turning the place into hell: fireballs, electrical shorts, collapsing walls, flying vehicles, smoke, flooding, the works.

Special effects have come a long way since the Poseidon went belly-up, and Daylight — which was shot at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, far from any New York/New Jersey hecklers — makes use of every bit of FX know-how at hand. But what’s unfathomable is this: This disaster looks cheesy! It’s Italian formaggio! The fires look painted in; the collapsing tunnel walls look like mashed potatoes. As Kit rounds up the dazed survivors, leads them on their passage through purgatory, and referees the squabbles and fears that are a vital part of any disaster-epic journey toward redemption, the B-movie qualities of Daylight begin to bore rather than endear. Set to a lurching pace of two steps forward, one step back, the action loses velocity when it should be gaining. Sometimes, straining to shut down massive machinery, Stallone is posed like a man in a Margaret Bourke-White photo; occasionally, he looks like he’s enacting a scene from Modern Times. But, actually, Sly is merely pumping his way from scene to scene, and neither Kit’s heroism nor his humanity deepens the longer we know him.

There is, by the by, one other important way in which Daylight advertises its tinny modernity. In The Poseidon Adventure, you may remember, the prophet who, like Moses, led his people most of the way to safety was a minister, played by Gene Hackman. Hackman’s preacher subscribed to a hip, confrontational relationship with the divine, but he went down howling a prayer to his God. Well, there’s no such metaphysical sparring partner here. Even though Kit Latura and his congregation make their way through a tunnel that parts the seas, theology has no place on the Cinecittà set. When the survivors make it to a hidden bunker where the sandhogs who built the tunnel once slept, ate, and prayed, the only way out is to tear down a huge carving of Jesus that blocks an escape hatch. Had Latura et al. paused for even a moment to acknowledge what they were doing, Daylight might have been a whole other ball of fire. C

  • Movie
  • 115 minutes