“Unstoppable” is about a runaway train on a collision course to wipe out a mid-sized Pennsylvania town and that streamlined premise might be the best thing to happen to director Tony Scott in years. The schizophrenic director, given to rapid edits, multiple filters, and cameras stuck in a wide array of angles has never done well with scripts with any degree of complexity or multiple narrative threads (please see the disaster that is “Domino“) so it’s no surprise that the narrowly focused “Unstoppable” is one of the Scott’s most enjoyable pictures in a long time.
However, though the picture is a popcorn-muncher’s delight, it doesn’t start out that way and the preamble leading in the film’s central conceit is as clumsy and hamfisted as the director’s worst efforts. After four months of training, Will (Chris Pine) arrives for his first day on the job where he is assigned to work along side twenty year-plus veteran Frank (Denzel Washington) and things to get off to a rocky start. The grizzled, older employees who are being laid off in batches don’t look too kindly on the young upstart particularly since they suspect his family ties to the owners of the company landed him the job rather than any actual experience. Meanwhile out on the trainyard dumb and dumber duo Dewey (Ethan Suplee) and Gilleece (a thoroughly wasted T.J. Miller who is given a couple of lines of dialogue and an astonished expression) bungle moving a train half a mile long in length and set it running down the tracks on its own power with the failsafe brakes turned off.
At first, the situation looks like a mistake — a big one — that can quickly be solved. Train traffic manager Connie (Rosario Dawson) orders other trains out of the way and sends Dewey and Gilleece after the train to board it and stop it. She also telephones Ned (a very enjoyable Lew Temple) a colleague who is running late to the office, to try and get a visual on the train to determine how fast its going. Listening to Connie’s instructions Ned drives to what they believe is a location ahead of the train but it’s only after the minutes pass that they realize the train, loaded with combustible chemicals, is traveling far faster they ever imagined. As Connie says, the thing is a loaded missile that needs to be stopped.
At this point the script by Mark Bomback gets utterly shameless. Schoolchildren, horses and even a young solider just back from serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan are all placed in the train’s dangerous path. It’s completely manipulative and each of these attempts to build suspense and a sense of danger fail simply because of how transparent they are. Meanwhile, Will and Frank are on their way back to home base with a load of goods when Connie contacts them to tell them to pull to the side to let the runway train pass. As they pull over and watch the train zip by Frank has an idea to stop the train and together with Will, the chase starts, and from here the “Unstoppable” turns into a solid white-knuckle ride.
The real pleasure of “Unstoppable” is that it’s an action picture that doesn’t rely on stagy set pieces. The film carries with it a distinctly ’70s vibe, being more concerned with blue collar characters risking their lives even as they go against the stuffed white shirts of the corporation who are (literally) on a golf course worrying about how intentionally derailing the train might affect their stock options. Will and Frank use their wits and a considerable amount of brass balls as they try to stop the train before it hits a dangerous above ground turn in Stanton, PA where, if it flies off the track, it will cause immense destruction and loss of human life. The film is at its grittiest and most exciting when Will and Frank are risking their lives on the fast-moving train trying to get up to the engine to slow it down and while Scott does allow the locomotive to smash into various inanimate objects he’s smart enough to realize the high-wire situation the leads find themselves in provides more than enough thrills for the film.
Marking his fifth outing with Scott, Washington is obviously comfortable in the director’s hands and while it’s the kind of performance he can sleepwalk through, his charm and presence is still fairly undeniable. More impressive is Pine who emerged as a strong lead in “Star Trek” and continues to hone his bad-boy-with-good-instincts hero persona in the film. He matches Washington every step of the way and it’s easy to see why he was a contender for the hotly touted “Safe House” earlier in the year; the two make a very fun and engaging duo. But while Dawson and Temple are also strong, we can’t say the same for the rest of the cast. As we said Miller is under-utilized while Suplee squares into the slovenly fat guy role with no particular personality. But the the most bizzarro bit of casting goes to Kevin Corrigan as a federal safety inspector who happens to be in Connie’s office as all of this goes down. Corrigan looks stunned to be in the picture and/or heavily medicated in a role that is underwritten and really has little-to-no bearing on any of the plot machinations. Corrigan can usually be counted on for solid backup work but seems completely lost, especially beside the commanding Dawson. And special extra points here for a major action pic putting two persons of color in the lead roles; it’s a little thing but it didn’t go unnoticed by us and its nice to see a working stiff actioner with a little bit of diversity.
“Unstoppable” isn’t going to win any awards nor does it do anything particularly groundbreaking or innovative to the genre. But it delivers what it promises: a runaway train, and two heroes who are gonna figure out how to stop it, and the film does it in spades. Coming in at a lean and efficient 98 minutes, “Unstoppable” trims the fat and while you can nitpick it to death as you leave the theater, you won’t be able to deny that you had a great time. [B-]