Directed by: Tony Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Dunn, Ethan Suplee
Whatever you may think of Tony Scott’s talents as a director (he’s no Ridley, is he?), he does have a knack for making his movies look pretty good. Unstoppable is no exception, with the saturated colors and rapid-fire editing he usually employs. And as daft as it may sound, I’d actually rank this almost ridiculously simple film among his better ones. No match for True Romance, obviously, but it certainly works better than Pelham 1 2 3 or Domino. Me, I like Enemy of the State. Never been much of a Top Gun fan…
Where was I? Right, “ridiculously simple”. The plot in this one is as thin as the paper it was written on, but sometimes simple is good. Through a combination of laziness and incompetence, a couple of train yard workers cause a half-mile long freight train, loaded with highly flammable chemicals, to head — driverless and at full speed — towards the town of Stanton, Pennsylvania, where an elevated curve will make it crash with all sorts of destruction as a consequence. After the railroad company attempts, and of course fails, to stop the train, it is up to veteran engineer Frank Barnes (Washington) and his rookie conductor partner Will Colson (Pine) to chase down the runaway train in order to get on board and stop it. Add an evil railroad boss, a dash of clichéd characterization, shake camera, and serve loud.
The worker primarily responsible for the screw-up is Ethan Suplee in the role as Dewey, whose last name surely must be Hickey. Tasked with moving the huge train, Dewey and his colleague can’t be bothered to connect the air-brakes. Spotting a switch set to the wrong track, Dewey then puts the locomotive at full throttle, before jumping off to re-set the switch, only to stumble and fall, and then being unable to get back on the train.
While we wait for the two trains to collide on the main line, Frank and Will don’t get along all that well in their rickety old locomotive — a sure sign that they will be best buddies before long. Pine is preoccupied and makes mistakes, because his girlfriend has slapped a restraining order on him. He is perfectly innocent, of course. Washington is the proud father of two Hooters waitresses, but father/daughter relations aren’t that good. These scenes are so shallowly written that it’s obvious that not even the filmmakers care about the characters. Bring on some train action, already!
Which is what Unstoppable does pretty well. The action scenes are well made, though perhaps not spectacular. The attempts to stop the runaway train involves dropping a guy on top of it from a helicopter, put another locomotive in front of it to try to brake it, having marksmen shoot at the fuel switch, and finally to derail it. After the runaway blows right through the derailing contraptions, Denzel and Chris succeed in chasing down the train. Pine gets injured as he tries to connect the locomotive to the rogue train. Washington manages to jump aboard and tries to reach the locomotive, applying the brakes on individual cars as he goes, while that fatal Stanton curve rapidly approaches…
What makes Unstoppable pretty effective is its sheer relentlessness. It is a fast, loud, single-minded action/adventure. You don’t have to worry about anything besides the physical movement of people and objects, because characters and backstories are, as stated, more or less non-existent. The downside of this approach should be obvious. The suspense is moderate at best, because we never for a moment doubt the outcome, and we don’t really care anyway. Nevertheless: as mindless entertainment, Unstoppable is quite passable.
“Is it a disaster movie at all?” some may ask, given the fact that the expected disaster is (ooooh! spoiler alert!) averted at the last moment. Well, it might be borderline, but if we consider Airport ’79 (a loopy crime thriller) and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (a loopy treasure hunt aboard a wreck) to be disaster movies, I think a case can be made for Unstoppable.* That said, the body count is disappointingly low, and the destruction is kept to a relative minimum, with an exploding locomotive and a bunch of collisions with vehicles on or near the tracks as highlights.
*) An essay discussing how to define the disaster movie genre is brewing. Got some reading to do first, though.