A variety of commuters fall afoul of the dreaded Murphy and his cruel law when a series of calamities (an explosion for instance) see a tunnel blocked at both ends, leaving the survivors trapped…and pretty much underwater. Fortuitously, one of the commuters to survive is an ex-Emergency Services guy, Kit Latura (Sly Stallone). Sure, he left the job after a botched rescue resulting in him now driving a cab…but when you’re in dire straits, any help is surely welcome. Not that Latura’s former colleague (Dan Hedaya) wants him to help out mind you. Then there’s the dicey situation of a prison bus inside the tunnel, leaving citizens potentially at the mercy of not only disaster but potential prey for several cons played by the likes of Renoly Santiago and Sage Stallone. Amy Brenneman (a struggling playwright), Jay O. Sanders (a jerky dad), Danielle Harris (jerky dad’s scared daughter), Claire Bloom (token elderly woman with her husband…and dog), and Viggo Mortensen (a cocky and rich extreme sports dude) are among the trapped. Stan Shaw plays a transit cop who gets injured, putting on hold his plans to propose to tunnel operations dispatcher girlfriend Vanessa Bell Calloway. Barry Newman plays the tunnel operations supervisor, and Rosemary Forsyth of all people turns up as the head of an engineer company.
If the idea of “Cliffhanger” crossed with “The Towering Inferno” (and a sizeable helping of “The Poseidon Adventure”, one of the best in the disaster genre) sounds like a good mix to you, you’ll probably enjoy this A-budget B-movie from 1996. I like the disaster movie genre for the most part, and while eclectic director Rob Cohen (“Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”, “Dragonheart”, “The Fast and the Furious”) doesn’t give us a great one, he gives us a consistently watchable one. That’ll do for me. I won’t deny that it’s a little too Irwin Allen-ish in terms of just how silly it is, especially in the frankly ridiculous set up. However, it’s a disaster movie and most people kind of expect disaster movies to be a little stupid. The fact that it’s produced by a member of the De Laurentiis family (Raffaella, daughter of Dino) tells you to expect some prime cheese. The car-jacking punks in the opening scene come right out of a C-grade urban justice flick circa 1984, for starters.
As dumb as some of what we get early on is, I actually liked how complex the set-up of the plot is as we’re quickly introduced to the characters whilst the central disaster is unravelling at the same time. Cohen at least deserves credit for getting off to a rapid start and keeping the thing pretty well on the move throughout. It may be dumb, but Cohen (“The Fast and the Furious” excepted) isn’t an especially dumb director. There’s a particularly tense scene where Stallone has to navigate his way past a series of exhaust fans. I have no idea how plausible the scene was, but when something is done well, logic doesn’t really matter. You’re too caught up in the situation to care. We also get some genuinely funny comic relief from an unexpected source: Amy Brenneman (in her best performance to date), playing a hot mess with a comically rat-and-roach infested apartment on her way to the worst day of her life. However, I’m pretty sure it’s scientifically impossible for these characters to not be burned alive 15 minutes in. That’s the point at which you’ll have to make a decision whether to opt out of this silly movie or check your brain beside you and just enjoy the cheese. I found myself mostly in the latter category, especially given it’s a helluva spectacle to behold, dumb or not. Everyone should’ve been fried to a crisp early here, but from an FX and disaster POV, it’s solid spectacle which for me was enough.
Sly Stallone is obviously going to play more than just a typical NYC cabbie here (BTW, the film was shot in Italy! It sure fooled me), and indeed he’s a guy who conveniently enough happens to be an ex-Emergency Medical Services Chief. By the way, you can tell this is pre-9/11 because here Stallone is told to keep his expert nose out of things. With 9/11, even former fire-fighters like actor Steve Buscemi were out there getting shit done. Today they’d be happy to have this guy’s help if things went bad. It’s a well-chosen part for Stallone (if very similar to the basic set-up for “Cliffhanger”) who gives an assured performance as a guy who, if the people here knew from the get-go what is in his past, they’d probably not trust this guy. Since it’s Stallone, the audience is pretty sure he’s gonna do a much better job this time around. However, since this is mid-to-late 90s Stallone, you’re not 100% certain. I’d argue that this is Stallone’s best film from 1994 up until say “Creed”.
It’s weird seeing Viggo Mortensen (who is a lot older than you think he is, by the way) here essentially playing the 1996 American version of Bear Grylls crossed with a slick CEO character in a supporting role. Or in disaster movie terms, Mortensen plays Christopher Lee in “Airport ‘77”. His stardom took off way too late in life if you ask me, especially considering how damn charismatic he is even here. On the downside, not everyone fares so well here. Stan Shaw is a solid character actor, but he gets saddled with the role of ‘guy who really shouldn’t have phoned his girl to tell her to meet him later’. That’s a cliché of a cliché of a stereotype. Worse, the girl in question is played by Vanessa Bell Calloway who can’t tell if her character is Jamaican or Irish. A woeful attempt at whatever accent that is meant to be. I’m a little mad that Cohen has been handed a gift in Claire Bloom, one of cinematic history’s most gorgeous and classy ladies and talented actresses…and he barely does anything with her. She’s like Shelley Winters in “The Poseidon Adventure” but with none of the memorable Oscar-bait moments. Meanwhile, I find it weird that Danielle Harris can go a few rounds with Michael Myers easily but a tunnel fire scares the crap out of her. Total wimp if you ask me. I’m almost serious, too. Also, if you’re in some kind of vehicle with a prisoner who looks an awful lot like Renoly Santiago…get outta there immediately, something bad is about to go down. After this and the subsequent “Con Air”, dude’s clearly a jinx. The highlight of the entire film is the really strong music score by Randy Edelman (“Last of the Mohicans”, “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”), adding some prestige to the whole thing.
Obviously very silly, but better than most of the other disaster movies of the day (“Twister”, “Dante’s Peak”, “Volcano”). An assured Stallone leads a fine B-cast, and the disaster FX and spectacle hold up pretty well. In fact, I think it’s underrated and slightly better than Stallone’s subsequent “Cop Land”. At least this one delivers what it promises, the latter narrowly failed to do so. Scripted by Leslie Bohem (“Nowhere to Run”, “The Darkest Hour”), this is solid, if standard stuff.