Refurbished intensity – Just when you think we’ve seen everything there is to see with trains on a track to destruction, director Tony Scott and Denzel Washington hook-up for “Unstoppable.” Coming off the heels of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” another heroic yarn involving diesel locomotives and yes, Denzel Washington, it was probably a tad bit too soon to release this film.  Had they waited another year or so, who knows what the perception might have been . But, either way, this story dials up the intensity level and never relinquishes it, which for this type of film is really all we can ask for.

What’s it about? This story was inspired by the true events that took place in northwest Ohio back in 2001 when a CSX train with hazardous materials got loose and started coasting away.  Only here, the train is AWVR (Allegheny and West Virginia Railroad) and is speeding through the southern region of Pennsylvania. And it was in the town of Stanton where we met our conductor, Will Colson (Chris Pine), who got up and went to work at the Stanton rail yard, just as he had done the previous day. Today, though, his orders were to work with veteran engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), who we later find out was given his early retirement papers several weeks back, a move the entire rail company was making across the board in an effort to cut costs and bring in younger talent like Colson.

Meanwhile, over in the Fuller rail yard across town, a couple hostlers are asked to move an idle train to another side track. Without much time to do so, they hurry the process without connecting the air brakes and the next thing they knew, the train was coasting away and out of their grasp. Turns out, this “coaster” had a series of tank cars carrying hazardous materials, a mistake of gigantic proportion as this train began to go faster the longer it coasted. It was then that the story turned on its head as the race to stop this train reached Frank and Will, who against instruction took it upon themselves to stop this train with their own ingenuity, all leading to a predictable conclusion full of the kind of heroism you simply can’t make up.

Acting out – It’s pretty clear that Tony Scott likes working with Denzel Washington and vice versa, as this marks the fifth film they have done together, the second involving some sort of locomotive. And let’s be honest, without Denzel Washington’s face in front of this film, no one would even be talking about this film, much less going to see it. Given that we just saw Washington last year in “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3”, replacing Washington with anyone else and this project would probably not have hit the big screen. Sorry, Chris Pine isn’t big enough yet for people to watch him in just anything, and as much as I love Rosario Dawson, she too won’t carry a film such as this, even though she played her role quite well.  In fact, I would have liked more of her ‘back and forth’ with the politics surrounding this event and the interaction she had with Washington from afar.  That made for some good secondary entertainment to the action in or around the trains. 

Undervalued production? Any casual fan might not know who is behind such a film like “Unstoppable,” so for those that have never been properly introduced to director Tony Scott, here is your chance. It may not be his best, but it certainly isn’t his worst for a guy who has directed over 13 feature films since his groundbreaking work in 1986 with “Top Gun.”  Because for the kind of film that this was, I was real impressed with the production value and how realistic it all looked. Tony Scott made sure you felt as if you were on the runaway train with Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, helping to pull you into all the unfolding drama and action.

Nothing seemed over the top and when the story needed a push of intensity, Scott dialed up his extreme close-up shots and overhead magic with the camera. That was vital for a script that truly didn’t do the cast any favors with all the choppy dialogue and uncomfortable talking points. All too often, you were almost taken out of the moment with what the writer’s failed to do, unable to draw enough of your attention away from the action around the trains. That’s too bad, because there was a real opportunity to send a message with this story, given all the underlying politics surrounding the executives and what they felt was right for the company’s profit margin in this chaotic situation.

Bottom Line – There’s no doubt most people will brush “Unstoppable” off as just another thriller involving trains, and while that is true, it’s still a great flick to pop into the DVD player on a rainy day.  So with that said, I would pass on this film for now and wait until that DVD day comes along, as it will be valued much more in the confines of your own house, rather than on the big screen.   

C+

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