It's impossible to capture on the printed page the anticipatory thrill of watching Sylvester Stallone handle rapid-fire dialogue: the rumbling basso voice, the twisted mouth valiantly trying to wrap itself around a stream of words, the consonants and vowels hurling forward like a toppled barrel of oranges. Will any of it make sense? For so long Stallone has been the strong, silent, too-cool type -- his salary per film usually breaks down to half a mil per sentence. The idea of him in a high-pressure physical situation that also asks that he be conciliator and negotiator and diplomat was, for me, a weirdly exciting thought: Could Sly communicate beyond his cold stare and chiseled pecs?
In Daylight -- a Poseidon Adventure-meets-Die Hard trauma package set in the Manhattan (wink, wink: Holland) Tunnel -- Stallone clearly relishes the chance to actually talk to people amid the chaos. As Kit Latura, a cabdriver and former emergency medical services honcho who happens to be at the New York entrance of the tunnel when a toxic explosion seals off both ends, Stallone finds himself having to talk bystanders through injuries, convince old colleagues to let him help (he knows that tunnel from his EMS days) and berate bureaucratic idiots who don't know what they're doing. Bruce Willis has this kind of sneering verbiage down pat -- with Die Hard cop John McClane he perfected the action hero as quippy, know-it-all motor mouth -- but it's always been harder for the thick-timbred Stallone to patter his way through a flick.
The dialogue struggle is evident early in Daylight, which wastes no time introducing its average New Yorkers, tossing them into the tunnel and shutting them off in a fiery display of apocalyptic pyrotechnics. We flat-out can't understand a lot of what Stallone says -- by the time we've figured out "tehhwss huppathewwl" means terrorist hypothetical, we've already missed a few more lines -- but the good news is, the effort has invigorated him as an actor. Do we have to know exactly what bit of engineering jargon he just blurted out? No, just that he's one intense motherfucker and he's gung ho to get down there in the tunnel and risk his ass to rescue some folks. Combine that with the veteran action hero's long-standing ability to make bulging muscles and pained expressions do a lot of the talking for him, and we get from Daylight one of the actor's most engaging star turns in years.
The resurgence of Stallone comes, however, at the expense of a Universal-theme-ride-to-be that sounds a lot more fun and exciting than it actually is. Director Rob Cohen (Dragonheart) and writer Leslie Bohem have gone to great lengths to whip up a frenzy of tick-tick-ticking peril with their claustrophobic playground -- the Hudson about to pour in, toxic fumes swallowing all the oxygen -- but the results are either not campy enough for laughs or too much a copy of Poseidon to make us care. It's all technically proficient and looks expensive (the enveloping fire at the beginning is impressive), but it isn't exactly enjoyable.
The only genuine nail-biter is the sequence teased in the trailer: Stallone maneuvering through four enormous ventilation fans to get into the tunnel. Each fan is calibrated to stop and start in a logarithmic sequence, and Kit has to squeeze between blades before they get up to prime whirring force. It's a classic bit of man versus steel derring-do, and Cohen makes sure he lets us know it's Stallone in most of the hair-raising, doubly bruising stunt shots.
Spending time with the petulant, terrified survivors is another story. This is a Poseidon-ish bunch -- an elderly couple, a kid with estranged parents -- albeit with more ethnic diversity, but that's mostly represented by three convicts (one being Stallone's son Sage). All of them frightened into perfectly timed tirades of doubt at Kit's abilities (thanks to their discovering Kit was disgraced out of his old job because of some, ahem, deaths for which he was responsible), the supporting cast makes little mark on the consciousness.
There's the down-to-earth Amy Brenneman as a frustrated playwright trying to escape New York -- something tells us she winds up in Hollywood, turning her nightmare into a spec script. Viggo Mortensen has some initial good fun as a narcissistic sportswear entrepreneur who tries to anticipate his own part in rescuing everyone (he has the little girl capture his I'll-save-you speech on her camcorder for a future commercial), but because the filmmakers teach him his lesson early, he's nixed as a dramatic thorn later on.
Although Daylight is built upon the fending off of natural dangers, it could use more good old-fashioned human villainy as a loyalty-dividing suspense tactic. As for the rest of the cast, the only big huh? is what Claire Bloom, as the wealthy female half of the old married couple, is doing sloshing around hunks of twisted metal (although her autobiography makes it clear that living with Philip Roth was its own special brand of natural disaster). The distinguished Bloom isn't cheesy enough (or big enough, for that matter) a presence to live up to a Shelley Winters, though she does give it her all when she has to, um, plead for her dog's life.
In the end, Daylight is an overwrought symphony of mud, fire, water and rats that has enough to keep its $20 million star busy but little in the way of real tension to live up to its bloated genre. The people interaction is so perfunctory ("We won't make it!" "We have to try!") and the tunnel scenario becomes so numbing that you long for a shot of an evil, accented mastermind pulling a switch that says MORE FLAMES just so you can satisfy your need to blame. Even with its share of set-piece spectacles, you may find you have more in common with a group of people losing oxygen by the hour than you realize. Chances are, though, you'll yawn instead.
Directed by Rob Cohen. With Sylvester Stallone, Amy Brenneman, Claire Bloom and Sage Stallone. Rated PG-13. 109 minutes.
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