Revisiting the Forgotten Gem of Daylight (1996)

1996 was a banner year that famously revived the age-old disaster movies with state-of-the-art special effects. This includes Twister and Independence Day, both of which ruled the box office during the crowded summer movie season.

Then came Daylight, which was released during the end-of-the-year holiday season. With a reported budget that costs US$80 million to make (a considerably huge amount at the time) as well as then-bankable action star Sylvester Stallone leading the role and an engaging disaster-movie premise, it looks as if Daylight is destined for box-office gold.

Whereas the international box office fared better, there was no such luck in the stateside, grossing a mere US$33 million in total. The movie was largely forgotten, with Stallone’s then-proven star power subsequently diminished over the next few years. Although he did great in Cop Land the year after, most of his movies ever since (e.g. 2000’s Get Carter, 2001’s Driven as well as 2002’s D-Tox and Avenging Angelo) failed to connect with the audiences. His faltering career did manage to revive in some capacity after he reprised his two iconic roles in Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008) and appeared in the lucrative all-star ensemble of The Expendables in 2010, which spawned two more movies in 2012 and 2014.

Sylvester Stallone and Amy Brenneman in "Daylight" (1996)

Back to Daylight, Leslie Bohem’s script is the kind of classic Hollywood disaster-movie template peppered with all the familiar stuff: Following a massive explosion that blows through the Holland Tunnel caused by the toxic waste, a disgraced former chief of New York City’s EMS (Emergency Medical Services) Kit Latura (Stallone) happens to be there at the time.

He subsequently volunteers to save the civilians who are trapped in the sealed tunnel. The civilians in question include the usual stock characters we come to expect from a disaster film. Among them includes the dedicated police officer on duty (Stan Shaw’s George Tyrell), a struggling playwright and a token female co-star (Amy Brenneman’s Maddy Thompson), an arrogant sporting goods businessman (Viggo Mortensen’s Roy Nord) and an elderly couple (Colin Fox’s Roger Trilling and Claire Bloom’s Eleanor Trilling) with their late son’s beloved dog.

Surprisingly enough, for all the obligatory stereotypes and the familiar storyline that we have seen many times before, Daylight is one of those clichéd-ridden disaster films which actually works better than expected. Having recently revisited the movie on Netflix after watching them twice in the cinema (I remember both occasions were playing to a full house!) during its initial release in 1996, I still find it as an engaging piece of entertainment. There are a few reasons here:

Not even a (toy) dinosaur can survive in "Daylight" (1996)

Reason #1: The first 18 minutes or so is the classic example of how to engage an audience from the get-go. Several characters are all introduced in the utmost economical ways possible.

Rob Cohen, who gave us Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Dragonheart during the 90s and also responsible for launching the Fast & Furious franchise in 2001, doesn’t waste time getting to the point. A car chase ensues following a group of young diamond thieves trying to escape from the police, only to end up in a collision course after entering the tunnel and crashes one of the trucks carrying toxic waste. It’s all well-staged to thrilling perfection, coupled with the eventual big explosion shot mostly on practical effects — something that today’s Hollywood might think twice if they decided to remake Daylight using the same technical approach.

Reason #2: One of the movie’s most notable highlights involved Stallone’s Kit Latura braved himself to enter the sealed tunnel through the massive control fans. It’s a tense moment that still captured the same impact even after revisiting the scene more than 20 years later.

Sylvester Stallone and Stan Shaw in "Daylight" (1996)

Reason #3: Rob Cohen keeps thing moving at a brisk pace that justifies its nearly two-hour length. He also delivers enough palpable tension and thrilling moments throughout the movie while Randy Edelman’s stirring music score does help a lot in keeping up with the movie’s race-against-time momentum.

Reason #4: Daylight may give us stock characters but Cohen actually made good use of the acting ensemble, beginning with Stallone’s everyman performance as a former EMS chief trying to make amends over his past mistakes. To be honest, he did fine pulling off such a role that doesn’t end up playing a larger-than-life hero commonly associated with his famous action-star personality. It also helps that the supporting actors, notably Amy Brenneman and Stan Shaw did equally well in their respective roles. Also worth mentioning in the cast is pre-Lord of the Rings fame Viggo Mortensen, who made quite a lasting impression in his otherwise minor role as the cocky and egoistic Roy Nord.

Daylight is currently available for streaming on Netflix beginning Oct 1.