Unstoppable: Film Review
November 12, 2010
Director Tony Scott may have missed his mark by a bit on his last cinematic train ride with "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," but he hits his target dead-on in "Unstoppable." The best blue collar action movie in who knows how long, this tense, narrowly focused thriller about a runaway freight train has a lean and pure simplicity to it that is satisfying in and of itself.
But in its incidental portrait of discontented and discounted working stiffs who live marginal lives on society's sidings and are angry to varying degrees, the film carries an unexpected weight and could connect with Middle American audiences in a big way.
Arriving so soon after the Nov. 2 elections, Unstoppable would seem to uncannily embody the mood reflected in the results; life seems fractured and out of joint, there's a testiness in the way people relate to one another, friction between classes is worse than before and the future looks bleak. And yet one senses an innate, underlying optimism; perhaps the nation is down, but it should never be counted out, with the film suggesting that the common people can deliver the goods as they always have.
None of this was likely intended as the raison d'etre of Mark Bomback's screenplay, but it massively strengthens the film Scott has made for anyone who cares to notice. First and foremost, however, it's a crackling rip-snorter in which the moans, groans, sparking metal and sheer force of the train produce an intense visceral reaction for nearly the full 99-minute running time.
Inspired by a real story from 2001 of a 47-car train carrying toxic molten phenol acid that left the yard without an engineer on board and charged through Ohio for more than two hours before it was boarded and brought under control, the script features working class characters who are uniformly pissed off and carry their bad attitudes to work.
On this given day in central Pennsylvania, Will (Chris Pine), a young man whose wife has obtained a restraining order against him, is assigned as conductor on a freight run with veteran engineer Frank (Denzel Washington), whose college-age daughters work at Hooters but who otherwise keeps his problems to himself. Will's youth and family political connections do nothing to endear him to Frank's circle of grizzled veterans at the train yard, where morale seems very low indeed.
In fact, it is incompetence and a cavalier "whatever" attitude that triggers the crisis when a slovenly, overweight engineer (Ethan Suplee) hops off his cab to reset a switch and then can't catch up as his train (on which the air brakes also happen to be disconnected) rolls out of the yard. There's a bit of cheap suspense as the "coaster," as the runaway is initially called, is on a collision course with a trainload of school children but, once that's averted, the suspense and excitement build without distraction or pause.
Under full power, the hard-charging train becomes "a missile," in the words of train traffic manager Connie (Rosario Dawson), who tries to keep track of where the train is and how catastrophe can be avoided in the short term. Her boss Galvin (Kevin Dunn) must ultimately decide on whether or not to derail the train, but it's headed to more populated areas where the explosion of toxic cargo could prove devastating. Before long the incident is picked up by TV news (Fox, of course) and police choppers fly overhead.
On their run in the vicinity, Frank and Will become involved in the pursuit and various schemes are tried: Putting engines in front of the runaway to gradually slow it down, then pulling an engine up from behind to connect so as to drag the long train to slower speeds. But the most breathtaking sequence involves attempting to lower a Marine from a helicopter by cable down onto the runaway while both are doing 75 mph. Just when you think things might be okay, they're not, and the train -- and the film -- keep charging ahead to the outstanding finale.
Scott doesn't show any moves that he hasn't used before; the desaturated images, jumpy camerawork, abrupt cuts, spare and jokey dialogue exchanges and relentless forward movement are all things he's done for years. But here everything is stripped down to its essence and placed in the service of creating a piece that's virtually wall-to-wall action with no distraction.
Adding to the film's effectiveness is the essential credibility of both the mechanics and the setting. No matter how many or how few visual effects were used, what's onscreen all looks absolutely real, giving the appearance of actual trains running on actual tracks and causing actual mayhem on assorted gritty locations throughout Pennsylvania and Ohio that provide a vivid, extensive look at America's Rust Belt. In the staging, shooting and editing, this is a superbly orchestrated movie.
Even though they are only sketched in with the quickest of brush strokes, the sadness and limitations of the characters' lives are made indelibly clear. Underlying everything is an anger and frustration born of neglect and a sense of the world passing these people by. For those disposed to looking for metaphors and hidden sociological content in overtly commercial cinema, Unstoppable provides a term paper's worth of content; the characters here don't know how to articulate it, but there's a rage that seems prone to one day express itself by throwing over the oppressive, ill-run apparatus that governs so much of their lives (management, government, judges, you name it). You can take it or leave it, but this stuff is here.
Only somewhat more central to the action than the other actors, Washington and Pine spar with enjoyable attitude and humor, and character actors like Suplee, Galvin, David Warshofsky (as Frank's seasoned colleague) and Lew Temple, wonderful as a hopped-up rail employe bent on saving the day, bring plentiful color to this brawny, bruising ride that lives up to its title by accelerating from the very beginning and not letting up until the very end.
Opens: Friday, Nov. 12 (Fox)
Production: Dune Entertainment, Prospect Park, Scott Free
Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Dunn, Ethan Suplee, Kevin Corrigan, Lew Temple, Kevin Chapman, T.J. Miller, Jessy Schram, David Warshofsky
Director: Tony Scott
Screenplay: Mark Bomback
Executive Producers: Chris Ciaffa, Jeff Kwatinetz, Rick Yorn
Producers: Eric McLeod, Julie Yorn, Alex Young, Mimi Rogers, Tony Scott
Director of Photography: Ben Seresin
Editor: Robert Duffy, Chris Lebenzon
Production Designer: Chris Seagers. MUSIC: Harry Gregson-Williams"
Editors: Robert Duffy, Chris Lebenzon
Rated PG-13, 99 minutes