Director : Tony Scott
Screenplay : Mark Bomback
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Denzel Washington (Frank), Chris Pine (Will), Rosario Dawson (Connie), Ethan Suplee (Dewey), Kevin Dunn (Galvin), Kevin Corrigan (Inspector Werner), Kevin Chapman (Bunny), Lew Temple (Ned), T.J. Miller (Gilleece), Jessy Schram (Darcy Colson), David Warshofsky (Judd Stewart), Andy Umberger (Janeway), Elizabeth Mathis (Nicole), Meagan Tandy (Maya)
Perhaps it is due to the lean, linear nature of the storyline in Unstoppable, which follows a series of desperate attempts to stop a runaway train through central Pennsylvania, but director Tony Scott seems to have finally dialed back the stylistic bombast that has marred his films for much of the past decade. Scott has been freed from the perceived need to inflate his already inflated material with so much hot, stylized air that his films are usually bursting at the seams (for most, the word “freedom” means “freedom to,” but for Scott, it is “freedom from”). Granted, Unstoppable is still shot with the currently fashionable high contrast, intensely filtered look, and there are more than a few unnecessary rapid zooms, swoosh pans, and jarring edits, but for the most part Scott keeps his worst tendencies in check and allows the muscular forward momentum of the story to move of its own accord.
Inspired by an actual event from 2001, the story takes place over a single day that begins with a couple of railyard workers in northern Pennsylvania (Ethan Suplee and T.J. Miller) allowing a 39-car train weighing more than 100 tons and carrying eight freightcars of highly combustible and toxic materials to get out of their control. One of the film’s primary pleasures is the way it makes understandable the complex inner workings of the rail system, not just God’s eye perspective of the managers and yard masters who keep an eye on all the different tracks and who is going where and in what direction, but also the physical, mechanical nature of an industrial technology that, while now enhanced with computers and more sophisticated engines and controls, is relatively unchanged since the 19th century. There is something to be respected about the weight and force of a massive train barreling down the tracks, especially when it is unmanned and heading into highly populated areas. The best moments in Unstoppable are the ones in which Scott makes us feel in our bones the potentially destructive mass of all that runaway power and how much we take for granted that trains are under control every time we cross a railroad track.
The story’s heroes are Frank (Denzel Washington in his fifth collaboration with Scott) and Will (Chris Pine), the respective conductor and engineer of another locomotive that happens to be on the same track as the runaway train. Screenwriter Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) spends a significant amount of time early in the narrative establishing Frank and Will as characters, and even though much of their characterization relies on easily digested traits we have seen a million times before (Frank is the experienced veteran at the end of his career, Will is the rookie just out of training who is despised by the union members because he comes from a wealthy rail family), Washington and Pine make it work with their combined charisma and chemistry. Both men are defined largely by their family issues: Frank, a widower, has two daughters who are working their way through college at Hooters, while Will is estranged from his wife (Jessy Schram) and young son for reasons that are not fully explained until the end of the film. Their respective family situations suggest certain character traits, namely stability and hotheadedness, so that when Frank decides to go after the runaway train and try to stop it, it is not so much because he wants to be the “hero,” but because his 28 years of experience have taught him that there is only one way to stop it (run up behind it, latch on, and gun the engine in the opposite direction), and he knows that he and Will are the only ones in a position to even try it.
Thus, Unstoppable moves from a focus on the runaway train narrowly avoiding potential disasters to a straight-ahead race against the clock as Frank and Will try to catch up with it and stop it. This naturally fits into the “Common Man Pushed to Extremes” narrative that Hollywood so dearly loves, and the rah-rah energy the film conveys is just about enough to paper over the familiarity. Scott builds the momentum slowly, making sure that all of the necessary information is conveyed so that we understand the full gravity of the situation, which means that some characters, particularly Connie (Rosario Dawson), the yardmaster where the train was lost, are little more than mouthpieces for crucial narrative information (“It’s not a train,” she implores, “it’s a missile the size of the Chrysler Building”). The action is so consuming at times that we probably don’t even notice when Scott is taking some chances, like eschewing background music during one of the most crucial suspense sequences in which Will risks his life to couple the trains together at 80 miles per hour. There is also plenty of room left for calling out corporate insensitivity to human life, which is primarily located in Galvin (Kevin Dunn), an executive with the rail company who would rather do anything other than damage the train and lose the freight, even if that means putting lives in danger (although the film’s highpoint of capitalist gut-punching is the scene in which the CEO makes his stocks-before-human lives decision on a golf course). It is all pretty standard fare, formulaic through and through, but Scott pulls if off with energy and a respect for its simplicity, which can only instill in us a hope that he has left his otherwise overcooked style behind for good.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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