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November 14, 2010


Movie Review – Unstoppable (2010)


The exciting action-thriller Unstoppable is the latest collaboration by Denzel Washington and director Tony Scott (their joint credits include Deja Vu, Man on Fire, and last year’s train hijacking thriller The Taking of Pelham 123); the script is by Mark Bomback (most notably and pertinently: Live Free or Die Hard). You’ll walk out wondering why Hollywood doesn’t make runaway train movies more often.

Note: I recommend seeing the movie before you read any reviews for it, including this one. The surprises aren’t everything, but why spoil them?

A railyard employee is a mix of careless/hurried/incompetent and a freight train rolls out of the yard with no driver in the cab. So far, so disturbingly plausible. The filmmakers amp up the danger level by putting the locomotive under power and disconnecting the automatic airbrake system. Less likely, but still plausible- and a very fine premise indeed for a 90 minute thrill ride.

The railyard is out in the country, but the farmland will give way to small towns and then to a small city with a section of elevated track that makes a hairpin turn. There are also several trains on a collision course with the runaway.

One of them is driven by Washington’s character Frank Barnes. The conductor, Will Colson, is played by up-and-comer Chris Pine (Kirk in the new Star Trek). Anyone whose heart doesn’t flutter with anticipation when Frank and Will roll over that section of elevated track with the hairpin turn at 15 mph on their way out of the city and towards their encounter with destiny is at the wrong movie.

Another of the oncoming trains is transporting grade school kids to the original railyard on a railway safety field trip. (Oh, the irony!) The trailer made much of the kids’ train. As it was following the film’s lead in doing so, it comes as a surprise when they’re diverted onto a siding and out of danger in the nick of time… practically right away. Of course, we knew the children were never in any real danger; this is a major Hollywood production after all. But with the cute kids out of the picture it’s anything goes. Goodbye comfort zone, hello suspense!

The movie skillfully builds excitement through a recurring pattern of tension and release, thrilling standalone set-pieces, and regular reminders of dangers to come. Washington’s veteran driver is the story’s center of gravity while Pine’s rookie is its action movie star. Both men are attractive regular guy-types who step up to do what’s right and walk away heroes. Rosario Dawson shines as the railroad dispatcher coordinating (the sensible and competent part of) the stop-the-train operation.

The action is located in southern Pennsylvania, the film was shot on location, and the real-world location photography is a huge asset.

In contrast to the confident assurance of the action-thriller narrative and pacing, the film betrays a serious lack of confidence in the scenario’s inherent drama. It’s unwarranted: how could this story not be dramatic? There are lives on the line! There’s an “unstoppable” train speeding towards a hairpin turn in a small city at 70 mph! It’s carrying toxic chemicals!

Yes, toxic chemicals; as if diesel fuel, a locomotive, and 20-odd freight cars don’t hold enough destructive potential. (Is a disaster not a disaster until the hazmat team is on the scene?) More overkill: the extra-situational drama around Frank and Will. Will’s not just a rookie, it’s his first day on the job. Will and his wife didn’t just have a fight yesterday, they’re Fighting in a ridiculously exaggerated way. Frank isn’t just an old-timer, the company is forcing out all the old union guys. And then there’s the scene where the CEO takes the call from the golf course and asks what this’ll do to the company’s stock.

3 stars


Review of The Taking of Pelham 123
Review of Star Trek

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. doc
    Nov 23 2010

    This is a classic example of a fine film that I almost missed because of a terrible trailer. The studio apparently thought that what I wanted to see this Thanksgiving was a film about personal relationships in blue collar America, and they created a trailer long on moments of personal angst and anger, and short on anything about plot, setting, characters, editing, or suspense. The relationships are hokey but proved mercifully peripheral, the runaway train is suspenseful and central.

  2. miriam
    Nov 24 2010

    I think trains are a great part of any action movie so I went prepared to have a great time. There are plenty of thrills and I liked the workaday bits at the yard, too. Some of the story was pretty lame but it didn’t really matter, to me anyway. The script created some unexpected things, like the quickly disappearing school kids and, even more, a government safety inspector who’s competent and helpful. If it had surprised us a few more times it might have been more completely satisfying, but I’ll settle for some solid runaway train excitement.

    (Was that a Pennsylvania groundhog that dashed across the track in front of the speeding locomotive?)

  3. Helen
    Nov 30 2010

    I loved that bit and like to think it was fortuitous, but suspect a groundhog wrangler in the trees. ;=)

  4. Helen
    Dec 16 2010

    From David Bordwell’s blog:

    “The review exhibits some Variety touches that are still with us. Take the (quite reasonable) idea that nearly every movie is too long. “If this five-reeler were cut down to three reels, which could easily be done, the Vitagraph would have a real thriller.” There’s also the notion that people who come to the see the movie should be aware of its main attraction. “If the audience knows a train will go through a bridge at the finish, it won’t mind the fiddling about in the first four reels before that scene is reached. But if the audience doesn’t know what is to come, there may be many walk-outs.” At the beginning of Unstoppable we’ll sit through all the union and non-union wrangling and alpha-male preening if we’re sure we’re going to see a train that is certifiably unstoppable, except that it’s likely to be stopped by our heroes.”

    I love this!!

    full post here:

  5. Dec 17 2010

    David Bordwell is definitely awesome. :O)