The general consensus on Ridley Scott’s little brother Tony seems to be that he’s the lesser talent. All style, no substance, never met a tripod he didn’t throw to the ground and hump… he’s the rugged and rowdy to Ridley’s respectable and refined. The truth is though that both brothers are hit or miss in general, and when they go head to head the numbers actually favor Tony. In the six times prior that the two have released films in the same year, Tony leads 3:2 (1996 is a draw as the films were White Squall and The Fan, both of which left the audience as the real losers). Which brings us to 2010… one of them released a bloated, confused, and miscast film that removed the magic from a well known legend. The other directed Unstoppable.
A cargo train in Pennsylvania is on the move… without a single person on-board. Human error sets the half mile-long train in motion, and soon it’s powering its way through everything in its path. Bad goes to worse when the train’s cargo is revealed to include dangerously combustible chemicals! And the emergency safety systems are inoperable! And a train-load of adorable children are on the tracks ahead! Also ahead are Frank (Denzel Washington) and Will (Chris Pine), two rail employees who’ve just met and already don’t like each other. Frank is an old-timer being forced to retire and Will is the young upstart groomed to replace him. Their train is heading straight towards the runaway, and after all else fails they may just be the only hope anyone has of avoiding a disaster.
Tony Scott’s Unstoppable works like gangbusters even as every bone in your body tells you it shouldn’t. It’s a movie about a runaway train that you know will avoid disaster and eventually be stopped, but it finds a surprising amount of action and suspense in the premise. Washington and Pine are the marquee names, but the train and Scott’s editing (via Robert Duffy and Chris Lebenzon) are the real stars. You can feel the theater shake and your body react as the train streaks past like a sniper’s bullet, the screech of metal on metal competing in your head with the rumbling bass of the cargo cars, and the film quickly becomes something you experience as well as watch.
There’s no doubt the film is a visceral thrill ride, but it works as well as it does thanks in large part to the care given to the main characters. Frank and Will don’t even come in contact with the runaway train until halfway through the film. Scenes with the train beginning its escape into the wild are balanced with ones of the two men meeting, bantering, and showing the audience and each other their humanity. Frank is a widower with two daughters and is angry with the company’s cost-cutting maneuvers. Will is recently separated from his wife and young child but is working to rekindle that connection. Washington can play the wise elder role in his sleep but thankfully chooses to invest Frank with real heart, and Pine shines as a charismatic and young blue collar worker focused on reuniting his broken family. The two have great chemistry together and play off of each other well.
One of the many appealing and surprising aspects of Unstoppable is the absence of a bad guy. The train is an inanimate object set in motion by human negligence, and while there is a whiny corporate type (Kevin Dunn) there’s no need for a villain to root against. Instead we have everyday people forced by situation and circumstance to become heroes. It’s a fantastic change of pace finding an action film able to trust that its story and characters are enough. Also appealing? The action and stunts feel real. Aside from one scene that appears to be literally sped up, the action looks to take place on real trains with real people… including Washington and Pine. There’s no visible CGI or green-screen work here, and again, it’s a refreshing change from the usual Hollywood fare.
Scott’s penchant for flashy cuts, shaky cam, and “stylish” film effects are present here, but they’re noticeably toned down. The opening is worrisome at first though as shots of the train yard are presented in full-on hyper Scottensity… even though none of the trains are moving. But we’re quickly ushered in to meet Frank and Will, watch the accident unfold, and then join the parallel characters attempting to help stop the train. Rosario Dawson, Ethan Suplee, and Kevin Corrigan are among the recognizable faces here, and all of them work to make the film a fast moving and fun flick.
Everyone was surprised when Scott announced his next project after The Taking of Pelham 123 would be another train-based film and that it would again star Washington. But the joke’s on them (err, us) because this film is a 8000 tons of suspense and action-filled momentum. Time is well spent getting the audience invested in the characters, smaller roles are written and performed equally well, and the action is legitimately exciting and beautifully staged. It’s a fast, slick, and exhilarating movie that never strives to be anything more than solid entertainment but still manages to exceed its modest goal. In the pantheon of great train-based movies, Unstoppable has found a berth towards the very top. So if you’re keeping track, it’s far better than Under Siege 2: Dark Territory.
The Upside: Washington and Pine have strong chemistry; film manages a solid and surprising amount of suspense; no artificially inflated “bad guys” needed; practical effects, action, and stunts used instead of CGI or green-screen nonsense
The Downside: Scott’s jagged editing style is misplaced in opening scenes where nothing is happening; the “guy hanging from a helicopter” bit should work damnit!
On the Side: Spoiler alert… the title lies