Unstoppable is about a railway train gone rogue. Its uncontrollable speeds are not a terrorist threat, and there are no bad guys trying to blackmail the government; there are no ill-intentions in the train's runaway nature, it just sort of happened, as a result of stupidity and poor decision-making. Unstoppable is almost an old-fashioned disaster film in that regard.
Old-fashioned is not the first descriptor that comes to mind when talking about Unstoppable's director, Tony Scott. Best exemplified in recent action films like Domino (2006) and Man on Fire (2004), Scott has shaped himself as a stylist more than a storyteller. His adrenaline-laced approach here is cerebral only regarding the part of your body that aches after two hours of fast edits and flashes of light. And although a speeding train is a beast that might lend itself to Scott's stylism, it's interesting to see the director paring back his tricks to suit the straight-forward subject matter.
A train engineer leaves his controls while the train is still moving so that he can throw a switch on the track, but he can't get back on because the train suddenly begins to accelerate. If that sounds like an overly contrived catalyst for an action film, keep in mind that the events of the film are based on a real incident and I'm sure the absent-minded engineer in question has plenty of egg on his face. As the train picks up more speed on its way to Philadelphia, it becomes clear that not only is it carrying hazardous, explosive cargo, but it's likely to derail right off a downtown elevated curve. Luckily, a nearby train is helmed by experienced engineer Frank Barnes and rookie Will Colson, who might just have the balls between them to save the city.
Like four out of five(!) of his last features, Unstoppable stars Tony Scott's latter-day muse, Denzel Washington, as Barnes. Perhaps there exists a person immune to Washington's charms, but, although he plays exactly the same character in every movie, he has charms that I cannot resist. His cool and calm performance is matched squarely by relative newcomer Chris Pine as rookie Colson, high off his performance as Captain Kirk in Star Trek (2009). Pine has certain charms as well, though it's largely subdued in his role as a struggling family man, but when it comes to the action, Pine shows he's ready for more roles like this.
Forget about the star power for a moment, the action is the real point here, and the real star of Unstoppable is clearly the runaway train. Scott gives his hunk of steel an overwhelming on-screen presence, it whines and crunches along the tracks in a manner that properly conveys the intensity of its power. The train careens through railway crossings and defies all manner of effort to stop it, and there is never a question that it will kill a lot of people if it reaches the end of its line.
As Barnes and Colson battle superiors who
want to derail the train on purpose in a less-populated area and ignore orders
from company men forbidding
to board the train, Unstoppable plays out in arguably conventional fashion.
But it's been a while since we've had an action film this simple, and
there's something appealing about that: there's a train on the loose and by gum
we're gonna stop it. Familiar, believable and thrilling in a lot of the right
places, Tony Scott has made a film that plays like a high-octane version of the
nightly-news, and we all know what a rollercoaster ride that can be.
Cross-posted at Ornery Cosby.