REVIEW: Unstoppable [2010]

“Stop. Look. And Listen.”

Sometimes the thrillers that pit their heroes against a clock rather than some evil villain work the best. They generally contain situations you as a viewer can relate to, regular people being in the wrong place at the wrong time—or right time depending on your outlook—stepping up to risk sacrificing themselves for the safety of thousands. This is exactly what Tony Scott’s newest work Unstoppable is, a test of mettle and courage on behalf of two rail drivers/conductors who take it upon themselves to partake in an insane plan to halt a half-mile-long train carrying explosive materials from derailing in Stanton, PA and causing the greatest disaster the state has ever seen. Inspired by a true story, Scott’s style of cutting back and forth to multiple locales, infusing a high octane score to blare with the emotions portrayed onscreen, and quick cuts to expository shots throughout the duration to show all angles of the potential catastrophe at hand is perfect for keeping the gas pedal pressed full, never letting the tension ease as they approach each checkstop, leaving us to wonder how it’s all going to end.

As soon as you see the names of Ethan Suplee and T.J. Miller, you know those two typecast screw-ups are going to be at the center of this debacle. Lazy union guys trying to get in some lunch and conversation before doing the job they’ve been asked to do all day, the two don’t take their job seriously, cut corners, and ultimately send what amounts to a deadly missile loose without brakes onto oncoming main rail traffic including millions of customer product, numerous rail workers, and even a full train of elementary students on a railway safety field trip. Shift supervisor Connie (Rosario Dawson) is filled in on the full details as the day progresses, finding that what should be a coaster on idle is really a maximum throttle torpedo going 70-plus miles per hour. She suggests derailing it early on in empty farmland, saying to hell with the money when lives would be at stake, but VP Galvin (Kevin Dunn) will hear none of it, instead hatching a crazy maneuver with air support and a brave conductor to try and minimize all loss. There wouldn’t be a story if he succeeded, so the train barrels on towards an elevated curve surrounded by flammable silos just waiting to flatten an entire town.

Scott and screenwriter Mark Bomback do their best to humanize the leads at the center of it all—Denzel Washington’s Frank and Chris Pine’s Will—so as not to make our heroes mere cardboard cutouts doing what the script tells them to do. These men have full lives at their back and the trials and tribulations of those crop out constantly. Will is a rookie at the job with nepotistic connections to the rail yard, waiting to hear on a restraining order that has been keeping him from his wife and son while Frank is a 28-year veteran who knows the job like the back of his hand and sometimes lets it take over his life, leaving his two college-aged daughters by the wayside. It’s the perfect combination of the stubbornness of youth versus that of experience, both getting on each other’s nerves, airing out grievances that go beyond their personal relationship, but instead to the job’s current fiscal predicament of laying off long-tenured workers with weak pensions for the cheap labor of newly graduated union men. There is nothing like a horrible tragedy, only preventable by them, to shove petty generalizations out the window and allow two human beings to find out what truly makes them.

While Unstoppable seems just as generic an action/thriller as Scott’s last film, the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, it somehow works much better. Not quite as effective as recent work like Man on Fire or Déjà Vu, it definitely is a relative of those in style and orchestration, but then all of his movies have been, going back decades after the more straightforward stuff like Top Gun. It actually reminded me most of Spy Game with it’s use of two men, their personal motivations, and the many other people at work to help solve the horror in front of them. I really enjoyed the back and forth between Dawson and Dunn, seeing how much money plays into corporate decisions even though lives lie in the balance; Miller and Suplee have the right blend of stupidity and bad luck, adding some comic relief while also showing just how scared they are by what they’ve unleashed and the deaths that could be on their hands; and supporting players Lew Temple—as Ned the wielder—and Kevin Corrigan—as Rail Safety Inspector Werner, on hand for the field trip’s presentation—help show just how many people were crucial to getting the things done to have a chance at averting destruction.

How Scott, pushing 70 now, keeps his filmic style so relevant is beyond me, but he has truly embraced the new world of cinema and all the techniques new technology has supplied him. Throughout all the fast edits, swelling music, and blatant slow moments to tug at heartstrings, he never loses sight of the characters’ humanity or the direness of the situations his scripts pit them against. Pine and Washington play their roles with a level of compassion and authenticity that most genre films of this ilk in Hollywood don’t bother to care about. We see the conflict in their faces, wondering if they should risk their lives, knowing that if they do, it isn’t because they have nothing to live for anymore, it’s in order to preserve their families despite currently being shut out of their lives. It’s an unlikely team of men from different generations, backgrounds, and futures, but at their core they are good men who know when to subvert authority and do what’s right. How much of the film is actually true is unknown to me, but even if all but the fact a runaway train once was loose in Pennsylvania is fabricated, it doesn’t diminish how edge of your seat and effective this film is.

Unstoppable 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Denzel Washington and Chris Pine race the clock to prevent disaster in a highly populated area. Photo credit: Robert Zuckerman. TM and ©2010 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
[2] Denzel Washington stars as a veteran locomotive engineer who helps devise an incredible plan to try and stop a runaway train—and prevent certain disaster in a hieavily populated area. Photo credit: Robert Zuckerman. TM and ©2010 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
[3] Rosario Dawson stars as Connie Hooper in The 20th Century Fox’s Unstoppable (2010)

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