Returning to the railroad for another train-in-peril movie after 2009’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 remake, director Tony Scott’s Unstoppable is not an action-thriller in a typical sense. Instead of a brain-dead Michael Bay-esque blockbuster, this is a man-against-nature disaster movie more in the vein of something like Dante’s Peak, though its story concerns characters trying to prevent an impending disaster rather than struggling to survive an unfolding one. It’s a welcome change of pace for Scott, who took to the challenge with the highest confidence, crafting a marvellous white-knuckle popcorn thriller which moves at such a breakneck speed that its undernourished script barely matters. Inspired by true events, Unstoppable is one of the 2010’s most satisfying surprises and one of the most technically accomplished blockbusters of the year.
It’s the first day on the job for young train conductor Will Colson (Pine), who finds himself in a workplace of grizzled old veterans. Given a partner in the form of aging engineer Frank Barnes (Washington), the pair steadily cruise along the Pennsylvania rails as they get to know each other. But their day is interrupted when they learn that an unmanned freight train carrying toxic chemicals is out of control, zooming through the state towards the heavily-populated town of Stanton where a sharp curve could send it flying off the tracks. With the looming possibility of a huge disaster and thousands of innocent deaths, Frank and Will conceive of a plan to slow down the speeding death trap, though they face opposition from the company’s corporate businessman who are more concerned about preserving stock prices.
Being that this is a mainstream Hollywood effort, screenwriter Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) altered parts of the historical record for dramatic reasons. (The true-life runaway train had a top speed of only 47 miles per hour, whereas Unstoppable‘s beast runs in excess of 70mph.) Additionally, Bomback heavily ladled on the clichés. Will, for instance, has an estranged wife and kid in the train’s potential impact zone, while Frank is a grizzled veteran with a chance to prove his character, and (just for good measure) school kids on a field trip are momentarily included as a cheap device to build suspense. The narrative’s outcome is highly predictable from the outset as well, though it feels wrong to begrudge the movie of this particular aspect because it is based on a true story and there’s at least enough nail-biting intensity to make the ride a tad uncertain in the moment. What doesn’t work, though, is the way the film constantly returns to thankless side characters and onlookers watching the events unfold on television. Too much of the on-screen happenings are shown through the lens of local news broadcasters who just state the bloody obvious. Perhaps this time would’ve been better spent building more heart or further exploring the characters.
Unstoppable‘s biggest asset is Tony Scott’s filmmaking touch, as the picture carries the slick, professional look which has come to define the director’s career. With Scott at the helm, the film is effortlessly exciting and incredibly intense. It’s also nice to see that Scott dialled down his overblown visual style, though Unstoppable still carries his visual signature – there’s a lot of sweeping dolly movement, the cinematography is zoom-happy, and the editing is at times hyperactive, but these techniques are not distracting. In fact, the style serves to permeate humdrum scenes with a sense of urgency and energy, while the ferocity of several set-pieces is amplified by such hysterics. Harry Gregson-Williams’ rah-rah score also helps to strengthen the sense of intensity during crucial sequences, not to mention the dynamic Oscar-nominated sound mix makes as feel as if we’re truly in the thick of the action. Thankfully, digital effects were kept to an absolute minimum too, as Scott accomplished as much as he could with practical effects and death-defying stunt-work. It allows the film to feel more real, which automatically heightens excitement and tension.
The characters of Will and Frank are thorough archetypes, but there are genuine attempts at heart (however minor) that make their roles work in spite of clichés. The dialogue is notably (and surprisingly) well-written in this respect, and the lead actors share a believable, easygoing chemistry. As Frank, Denzel Washington is highly engaging, and his charisma makes him easy to care about. Pine, on the other hand, goes through the motions well enough as Will, but he does not genuinely own the role. He lacks personality, and one gets the sense that anyone could have played the role with the same impact. Meanwhile, Rosario Dawson is extremely amiable as Connie, a yardmaster who communicates with Will and Frank over the radio. On a less positive note, though, Unstoppable introduces another glaring archetype in the form of a corporate asshole whose sole purpose is just to be an asshole. Kevin Dunn’s performance as said asshole is solid, but the role is an unnecessarily addition who only serves to highlight snobbish corporate mentality in an extremely obvious fashion.
Despite its flaws, Unstoppable is an above average popcorn picture on the whole – it’s not patently stupid, it has a strong enough cast, its production values are excellent, and the maddening pace allows you to overlook the lack of surprises and innovation. It’s well worth checking out on a lazy afternoon.