Movie Review – Unstoppable (2010)
by HELEN GEIB
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.