The premise behind 2008’s Taken is pretty simple — a man with a particularly violent skill set is forced by bad men to re-up those skills in order to retrieve a loved one. It wasn’t the first to use this story line and won’t be the last, but it was definitely the most popular at the box-office. The latest, though, is arguably better.
Dong-chul (Don Lee) was a gangster with a reputation once upon a time, but when the right woman came along he resigned his evil ways and made himself an honest man. Ji-soo (Song Ji-hyo) is someone special and the best decision he’s ever made. The same can’t be said for his business acumen as a risky investment lands him in league with some sketchy people more in line with his old life. When Ji-soo is kidnapped he finds himself with his back against the wall, but nothing and no one is going to stand in the way of getting her back.
Unstoppable is a simple, efficient, and thrilling movie that scales back the action from something like Taken while pumping up the character and emotion. No one ever cares about Liam Neeson’s daughter — we’re there for the action and Neeson’s grunts, and the film complies. Here, though, we get some terrific action beats paired with characters we actually care about. The added empathy and emotion add weight to the story beats and make the outcome far more satisfying.
Lee is a big part of the film’s heart, and if you’ve seen him in Train to Busan (2016) — which, honestly, there’s no excuse if you haven’t — you know that he’s a burly Teddy Bear who packs a mean punch. Unstoppable magnifies that character’s love for his wife and willingness to go down fighting, but this time he’s plowing through the living instead of the dead. It’s entirely fitting that it shares a name with the runaway train movie because Lee is a force to be reckoned with.
This is no artistically choreographed martial arts film. Dong-chul is a bruiser and a heavy hitter, and his opponents typically stay down after just one or two collisions with his fists. He’s a blunt force but it’s no less thrilling in its execution. He takes a beating, but his size, adrenaline, and goal keep him moving through henchmen like so many paper-mâché soldiers. Objects and cars come into play meaning the action never grows repetitive or dull, and instead it all builds towards what we hope is an inevitable conclusion.
Lee’s performance shows a man in pain. It’s a mix of physical and emotional, and unlike with Taken we feel a real risk of loss here. That element is helped by Song’s performance as a woman seemingly in over her head but who refuses to roll over and play victim. We see her terror, but we also see her determination towards not only escape but also towards helping the other women held prisoner with her. It leads to some tense and suspenseful sequences.
Writer/director Kim Min-ho back-loads the film’s action leaving the film’s first half free to focus on character work, and while that may not be to everyone’s tastes when they press play on an action movie it benefits the genre beats that come later. Lee and Kim make for an adorable but realistic couple, and her disappointment in his get rich quick schemes rings true and occasionally heartbreaking. They love each other and it’s easy to see why, so his quest to find her feels equally personal to us watching at home on our couch.
Unstoppable doesn’t rewrite the rules of action cinema and won’t leave viewers gasping like the year’s best action movies, but you’ll care about these people. You’ll nod approvingly as asses are kicked. And you’ll maybe get a little wet-eyed as it all comes to an end. That’s not too shabby for nearly two hours of your time.