Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Friday Forgotten Film: Daylight

dis•as•ter |diˈzastər|
noun
– a sudden event, such as an accident or a natural catastrophe, that causes great damage or loss of life
adjective
– denoting a genre of films that use natural or accidental catastrophe as the mainspring of plot and setting : a disaster movie.
informal

– a person, act, or thing that is a failure


During the 1990s, actor/writer/director Sylvester Stallone ventured away in film from his two biggest personas onscreen. That of Rocky Balboa and John Rambo. Age will do for that to you. Both roles brought notoriety, fame, and not surprisingly, some baggage. To his credit, for better or for worst, Stallone attempted a change of pace with a variety of unexpected films during this period. Action, comedy, and drama were each undertaken.

Some worked at the box office with little critical acclaim (Demolition Man, 1993) or were spotlighted later by critics and fans even if the film failed with ticket buyers at the time (Cop Land, 1997). Others were best left behind (My Little Hollywood, 1997) or went on to achieve the dubious distinction of being so bad that the film was actually and perversely entertaining (The Specialist, 1994). You gotta give it to him, the movie star gave his career a literal roll of the dice with this undertaking.

Though it gathers little attention these days (especially after Sylvester Stallone successfully returned to the Rocky and Rambo franchises during the 00s), the 1996 Rob Cohen-directed film, Daylight, offered an under-appreciated homage to the disaster films of the 70s. Although, modernized with some 90s sensibilities, events, and startling effects. I’ll admit, here and now, that I am a long-time fan of the disaster flick.

While it didn’t originate during that particular decade (the concept is as old as silent movies), the genre really hit its stride during the time that became known as the Sexy Seventies. Airport (1970) and, of course, The Poseidon Adventure (1972, and celebrating its 40th anniversary this year) kicked off the decade by making this type of film big box office as never before — studios noticed and Earthquake and The Towering Inferno (both in ’74) soon followed up to cash in on the craze.

Undervalued fare from previous decades, like The Last Voyage (1960), never had it as good as they did here.

If you enjoy this variety of movie, I don’t have to convince you at what makes it so captivating. For all the special effects and tension built into the care and filming of cataclysm onscreen, they really are simple and direct human melodramas. Sometimes strung together as enlarged family struggles. These sagas are just staged and wrapped around supreme survival situations.

At their core, these features range with raw human emotion as they play out through the interaction of fallible individuals, rising and falling to the whim and misfortune of nature or the folly of human enterprise. In other words, Life as we’ve come to know it, just pushed to the extreme. The best of them (those previously mentioned) manage to deftly weave their story around the ridiculous or  exaggerated deaths of people. Enough for the audience to care about the characters still surviving… and perhaps recognize themselves up there onscreen.

Essentially, what’s happening here is the cinematic equivalent of the ancient punishment known as ‘running the gauntlet’. At least, the version of the foregone punishment whereby the participants faults or foibles are deemed paid in full so that they can rejoin the living with a clean slate. If they make it to the brutal end, that is. Modern, effects-laden disaster films (cough… Roland Emmerich) seem to just get off on elevated, grandiose body counts through FX spectacle these days rather than this operatic aspect as their real payoff, however. Screenwriter Leslie Bohem and director Cohen clearly seemed to be paying attention to the old style of the genre with Daylight, and it showed. At least, for the few who watched and picked up on that during its lackluster initial release.

Another key facet was the effects deployed in the movie. Independence Day, the ‘other’ disaster flick out that same year — it was just disguised as a sci-fi, alien-invasion film — made extensive use of the CGI effects of the time (all to the tune of enormous box office returns). Daylight, on the other hand, delivered its little seen shock and awe the old-fashion way. Through the use of time-honored miniatures, imposing sets (these were Italian, btw), and things that really, and not virtually, came crashing down. Or simply just blown the Hell up. This was probably one of the last studio productions in the disaster genre that did so — 1997’s Dante’s Peak, also written by Bohem, came close with a similar effort in that decade’s continuing revitalization of the disaster movie.

Though, it wasn’t exactly laden with ‘above the title’ name actors, Daylight did carry on the genre’s tradition of using experienced character actors to do the yeoman heavy lifting throughout the story, along with some surprisingly young talent. Claire Bloom, Karen Young, Dan Hedaya and even future The Day After Tomorrow supporting actor, Jay. O. Sanders, along with others, delivered solidly. And were assisted well with the up-and-comers of the time in Danielle Harris and Viggo Mortensen. However, I think the surprising heart of this film was carried out by three actors in prime character roles. The always underrated Stan Shaw (he who co-starred with Stallone in Rocky oh so long ago) was vital in the ill-fated (and typical) support role.

His character, in fact, is the only one that uses the movie’s title in his dialogue as the spur to getting the survivors to safety. His character’s brief leadership and loss in the small group of survivors is felt right off, and set the tone for the struggle to come.

The remaining two actors really made for a strange combo that worked in unexpected ways. Sylvester Stallone and Amy Brenneman brought off the pairing that anchored the film. Both would have their second best (and nearly forgotten) performances of the decade in this, I believe — with Brenneman’s work in Heat the year before and Stallone’s highly underrated performance in the aforementioned Cop Land in the year ahead being their best. For a genre role, Amy is remarkable in this.

Singing a pissed off version of New York, New York as she drives her car into the doomed tunnel entrance nails the character’s frustration with the city like nobody’s business. So, too, is Stallone playing against type character in the film — our hero doesn’t have all the answers when pressed and is thwarted more times than not — that made for a unique and one of his more humbled performances around. Both are refreshing for what each brought to their parts, and because the city (to put it bluntly) really has it out for each of them. They develop a chemistry, without much chance at romance, that binds viewers to the film.

Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about this film as Cohen’s, and anyone else’s, masterwork or something that shouldn’t be missed by cinema aficionados. No, it is a genre movie, plain and simple. However, in such films there are bits of real life that make the experience of watching somehow relate to the audience, all the while existing to vicariously thrill and entertain those in the seats. This is what we strive to catch as movie-watchers, isn’t it?

And using the above definition that lead off this piece, Daylight qualified on all descriptions, I think. Though it failed at the box office, it remains a disaster flick in the best sense of the word. Yes, it could be said all the expected tropes from this category of film were picked off from a checklist, of sorts. Still, the film attempted to be contemporary in its storytelling whilst adhering to the genre it sought to pay tribute to.

Looking back from a post-9/11 perspective, it’s not difficult to spot the impact of that decade’s World Trade Center’s bombing (three years earlier in 1993) on this movie’s screenplay and the filmmakers’ thoughts. Rob Cohen made certain to include the Twin Towers in the opening and closing shots of the film. In doing so, he may have inadvertently, and for the foreseeable future, marked it for audiences, both new or old, to notice and reflect upon with more gravity than the director ever intended.

While the film is very 90s in its concept, it leans heavily on its 70s disaster epic roots in execution. Besides, it remains very watchable all these years later, if you’re into it as I am. Last year’s 15th anniversary Blu-ray Disc release is well worth experiencing, if you are. At any rate, Daylight as a film offered fans of disaster flicks a reminder that in tragedy comes survival. It’s that ‘kick in the pants’, ‘look forward and not back’ aspect that gets people through catastrophe. That’s got to count for something. If it is, then it’s for this I hope this piece of filmmaking, and the genre, doesn’t get forgotten.

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20 Responses to “Friday Forgotten Film: Daylight”

  1. J.D.

    I have a soft spot for disaster films also but I haven’t seen this one since… oh, well, it was first released on video. After you insightful review I may try to catch up with it again. I agree with you that Stallone did some tinkering to his career and image in the 1990’s and it’s a sham that COP LAND didn’t do better as he showed that he could actually act when required and hold his own up against heavy weight thespians like Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. He also did a little seen card playing/con man film called SHADE with Stewart Townsend and Jamie Foxx that’s pretty good also.

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    • le0pard13

      Thanks for the kind words, J.D. Yep, his work in ‘Cop Land’ was criminally ignored. And you’re right about ‘Shade’, as well. Enjoyed the hell of that one, too. Re-watching ‘Daylight’ in BD really was an enjoyable experience and a great throw-back to those old disaster flicks.

      I can’t wait until April, my friend. We get to see Stallone in a Walter Hill picture (based on the graphic novel), Bullet to the Head. You up for that one?

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  2. Jamie Helton

    Yes, this movie is a disaster…as a film, not regarding the genre. I was actually considering doing a critique of “Daylight,” but will probably incorporate it into the disaster film genre as a whole. I cannot begin to communicate how much I loathed this movie, from the dumb reason for the disaster (a car chase causes a truck filled with toxic waste to explode, which traps commuters in a tunnel because apparently both ends of the tunnel collapsed), to the inane deaths (Mortensen stares up in defeat as poorly animated rubble “falls” on him; a woman randomly dies because her dog was washed away, only to have the dog swim back after the woman perished), to the poor characterizations. What really topped it off for me was in the making-of documentary, Rob Cohen (in his shades, goatee, and shaved head) explains with a straight face that this movie is saying that “life is a tunnel.” The movie wasn’t saying anything–it was just trying to be a fun, cheesy disaster flick. Cheesy yes, fun no. It was a bad movie made by a director who’s so full of himself that he lacks the ability to know that he is an inept filmmaker and who has continued to make empty exploitation action movies that make Michael Bay look like Orson Welles. I’m glad you were able to see something positive in “Daylight.” I found it excruciating.

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    • le0pard13

      Welcome back, Jamie. Even though we disagree on this one, it’s good to hear your thoughts again. Yes, there are aspects that make it far from a classic, but I found myself more involved with Stallone and Brenneman with each re-screen. I actually caught this first run when it came out in ’96. Thanks for joining in with a comment.

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      • Jamie Helton

        I might be a bit harsh on the film, but it definitely captures the flavor of “Earthquake,” which featured a scene in which people died when an elevator cable snapped and they plunged to their deaths. Their bodies lying in a heap were blotted out by animated blood spreading across the frame like film burning in the projector. That scene required rewinding to make sure I saw what I thought I saw.

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        • le0pard13

          I know exactly the scene you’re describing in ‘Earthquake’. It looked bad in the theaters, too (no surprise, it was a Universal Studios production). I know, I was there first-run. In fact, I went to a Sensurround screening. More on that in an upcoming TMT.

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  3. Ronan

    I hear you Michael, there is one overriding reason for Hollywood to keep churning out good disaster movies: it re-affirms our sense of the responsibility we all have to each other. In a world of harsh realities and cold cynicism, it is refreshing to know there are still a few directors working today who know how to engender a positive feeling of community, through the worst of circumstances. Given the disasters of recent years both natural or otherwise, we would all do well to practice our compassion so that if a time comes when we have to choose, we make the good decision.

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    • le0pard13

      Great point. I couldn’t have put it any better, Ronan. This genre gets dismissed all to often, but it can be a refreshing, contemplative, if diverting, kind of film. Thanks for joining and adding to this, my friend.

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  4. ruth

    It wouldn’t be forgotten if I’ve never even heard about it right? 🙂 Interestingly enough, I’ve just got done reviewing a disaster film, but a very different one from this. Great review, Michael.

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    • le0pard13

      Good point, Ruth ;-). Oooh, which disaster movie? Can you share? ‘Daylight’, while not the best, has its moments with its old school effects and some great interactions between cast members, namely those I spotlighted. It’s worth checking out. Thanks, Ruth.

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  5. Castor

    Oh! I remember watching this movie as a kid. Definitely one of those forgotten 90’s flick 🙂 I remember liking it quite a lot so thanks for reminding me of it. I need to give it a watch one of those days.

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    • le0pard13

      Yeah, this one doesn’t get remembered much. Great to hear you’re a fan of this film, Castor. The new BD of it is pretty good in picture and audio quality — especially with those old-time effects. Thanks, my friend.

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  6. Dan

    This is a super piece of writing! I thought I was about to read a review of Daylight and ended up getting a whole lot more – Stallone’s post-Rambo/Rocky career, the emergence and popularity of the disaster movie, and the intricate workings of the genre. Really interesting stuff.

    I particularly like that you draw attention to the traditional special effects used in Daylight as opposed to what we would see later in the decade. This is definitely something I like about Daylight. Looking back at 1990s cinema (now unbelievably over two decades since we arrived at 1990 – how time flies) it is interesting seeing CGI become more and more apparent as it was at first used sparingly to add to traditional techniques. This often ended up leaving us with some very dodgy looking special effects – the likes of creature features Mimic and The Relic developed great atmospheres and looked great when using live action effects but didn’t do themselves any favours with their use of CGI.

    I think we can look at Jurassic Park and 1993 as the red-letter year. Spielberg obviously spent time, a lot of money, and the best effects people in the business to mix CGI with live action and he did it superbly. That film still stands up so well today from an effects point of view. Other production crews just couldn’t match that level in the 1990s.

    I’m not a huge fan of disaster films in general although I do like the second Airport film – the one where the little place crashes into the 747. They are always battling with an ensemble cast, often with leading men and women desperately trying to get as much screen time as possible. But you’re so right about them being melodramas – just with the extraordinary situation. No wonder they appear during afternoon TV on Sundays!

    But Daylight is a film I have certainly enjoyed although I haven’t seen it in a long while. I liked Stallone during the 80s and 90s – perhaps I am the only one who enjoyed Stop or my Mom Will Shoot!

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    • le0pard13

      It is very kind of you to say such complimentary things, Dan. I appreciate it more than you know. And what an in-depth comment, my friend. I especially like the films you mentioned in your examples. We have a lot in common, besides this film.

      Yes, ’93 and ‘Jurassic Park’ as the pivotal moment for the use of CGI in film (I covered it some of that in a duo-post from last year, in fact), and the unfortunate take by studios is that it’s left patrons with “very dodgy looking special effects” from time-to-time in movies since. Great examples in ‘Mimic’ and ‘The Relic’, Dan.

      It’s great to realize I’m not alone in fondly appreciating movies like ‘Daylight’ and ‘Airport 1975’ (which was actually released in ’74, but who’s counting?). I actually screened the latter film during my projectionist days in ’76 and grew to love it. BTW, that film makes for a great bookend to another older disaster movie, The Crowded Sky, as both feature airplanes meeting (not in a good way), survival situations, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

      Many thanks for reading and adding to this, Dan.

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