Tunnel Version Review: When a river rains down on trapped tube commuters, Sylvester Stallone feels their pain. With his heart and his head, he must sensitively lead them to "Daylight."

December 06, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

OK, you keep thinking, where the hell is Shelley Winters?

So standard a '70s disaster picture is "Daylight" that the absence of Winters indeed feels like a major disappointment. Her replacement by a far more austere Claire Bloom in the old-lady-who-dies-bravely role may appease the minimalists among you, but the rest of us, who want a real wallow, a shameless blast of cheesy nobility, false heroics, big explosions, action sequences like thrill rides and pious optimism about the morning after, will shrivel with grief. Bloom actually manages to preserve her considerable dignity. And what good is that in a movie like this?

Actually, if "Daylight" were a tad less shameless, it might be a lot less fun. It really goes for the jugular as it panders to popular taste, with a life-affirming epiphany every 20 or so seconds to a throbbing celestial choir. The best left me gaga-eyed with amazement when man-mountain Sylvester Stallone himself broke down into sobbing hysteria as he had to leave a brave but broken-necked policeman in the tunnel, while the waters rose and the rats began to abandon tube.

The plot is "The Poseidon Adventure" relocated to 70 feet under the Hudson River. The chance confluence of escaping psycho )) jewel thieves and a convoy of trucks illegally loaded with volatile toxic waste creates a fireball that seals off the tube at each end, killing about a thousand people but quixotically sparing a little band of survivors in the middle. Inevitably, they are from all walks of life: a few convicts, an estranged suburban Maryland couple and their equally estranged teen-age daughter, a dignified older couple who have given their love to their dog, their dog, an intrepid gal playwright, a pompous ex-mountaineer and a cop. They find themselves in a version of the Highway of Death out of Kuwait City after the Warthogs and the Apaches got done with a good day's killing in 1992. One difference: This highway of death has a roof. Another difference: This highway of death is slowly filling with the Hudson River.

There's one way to reach them and Stallone -- again stereotypically imagined as the disgraced former head of the New York Emergency Rescue Service who just happens to be in the area when the trucks vaporize into the Fourth of July -- volunteers to go down to them. Redemption, anyone? His descent is probably the movie's best set piece: He rappels through a maze of huge fans that can be slowed momentarily but never stopped. One mistake and it's Stallone chili for the rescue crew's lunch.

To give Stallone and the film's makers credit, he's not presented as a Rambo figure, completely heroic, stoic and isolated. He is instead a muscle-bound New Man, an Alan Alda in a Neanderthal's body, who has made peace with his fall from grace and tries to invoke a sense of community as the fuel to get his dazed survivor party out of the tunnel rather than brutally imposing macho imperatives of leadership. He feels their pain and he's running a committee, not a platoon. Indeed, the point of the macho ex-mountain climber (Viggo Mortensen) is to create a straw man of old-fashioned, narcissistic-aggressive male heroism, which is then neatly knocked down (by a couple of hundred tons of debris).

If memory serves, the original "Poseidon Adventure" was also construed to some degree as a philosophical debate, contrasting Gene Hackman's variant of free-will Christianity against someone else's (long forgotten) belief in God's will. So is "Daylight" a movie of ideas, a movie that contrasts theories of masculinity, coming down firmly in favor of the man who leads by example, who cares, who doesn't hide his human sensitivities? Nahhhhhhhhh. It's a movie of crashing tunnels, rising waters and a lot of screaming.

As a physical production it's extremely well done, unfortunately more convincing at the fore than at the aft. The initial catastrophe is spectacular and frightening at once, and the movie never tops that. Its solutions to the problem of people trapped in a tunnel underground and underwater is its lamest stroke. (Hint: just hum "Stairway to Heaven.") It would also have helped enormously if somehow they'd diagrammed the tunnel more clearly at the outset: The survivors keep discovering anterooms and chambers that no one would associate with a tunnel structure, and we keep wondering, where did that come from?

The movie does preach one sound moral lesson from which all of us in mankind can benefit: Never go to New Jersey.

'Daylight'

Starring Sylvester Stallone and Stan Shaw

Directed by Rob Cohen

Released by Universal

Sun score: PG-13 (intense impersonal violence)

** 1/2

Pub Date: 12/06/96

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