No matter how blue-collar or red-meat the story, director Tony Scott’s movies revel in his luxe, glossy yet easily distracted technique that ensures every shot is trailer-ready, and every fractured moment strives for maximum coolness. He’s an old-school cliche-hugger with a determined set of tricks that generally work for him, chief among them close-ups so close you feel like a dermatologist looking for warning signs.
The runaway train thriller Unstoppable is one of his better films. Even if you resist Scott’s brand of visual storytelling, proudly and persistently derived from TV commercials, this one charges down the track merrily unburdened by exposition. Unmanned freight train’s loose. Must be stopped. Veteran train engineer Denzel Washington and newbie Chris Pine are on the job. Questions? I can’t believe we wasted even that much time on the plot.
Scott’s previous film was the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. The train in that film mostly stayed still. The train in Unstoppable does not. For the most part — spoiler alert — it cannot be stopped, not even by Scott’s insatiable lust for telephoto lensing, an approach that mashes whatever’s on screen at the moment (and “a moment” is the average shot length) into a dense pile-up of faces, machines, movement and menace.
The faces and the machines kill the 99 minutes nicely, thanks. In a Pennsylvania rail yard, human error (Ethan Suplee plays the railroad schmo who causes the problems) sends a 39-car freight train loaded with “very toxic, highly combustible” chemicals on its way, flying through crossings (170 crossings make for a lot of potential carnage!), grunting and wailing in its amped-up, snarly beast sound effects like a mechanical Kraken. (Ken J. Johnson provided “additional train sounds.”) Only way to stop the unstoppable: with an odd couple pair of Bickersons ready for a road trip, by train.
Washington’s character has a couple of daughters who work at Hooters. Why is this? Because if he didn’t, Unstoppable would be mostly shots of trains, or of Rosario Dawson talking tough as the yardmaster. Once the railroad company executives (shown golfing, in carefree plutocratic manner) realize they may have some trouble on their hands, they attempt a planned derailment. Frank, played by Washington, knows this won’t cut it. Most of Unstoppable has Frank and Pine’s moody cuss, named Will, going rogue and whizzing along in a locomotive in reverse, trying to catch up with the runaway and bring it to heel.
Why does the film work? Simplicity. In its slicked-up way, Unstoppable likely will find favor with diversion-seekers (and train buffs) of various ages and political persuasions. The threats of unemployment, the roiling discontent with the recession, a hint of Tea Partystained rage: The movie, written by Mark Bomback in yellow highlighter, catches a distinct, nervous breeze, while (rightly) offering up its working-class heroes as, well, heroes. Washington couldn’t hit a false note if he tried; Pine, whose character is trying to get his marriage back together, keeps up solidly, and Dawson’s dispatcher brooks no weaselly nonsense from the company overlord played as a walking sneer (but subtly) by Kevin Dunn.
The real-life incident that inspired the film? In May 2001, a CSX Transportation locomotive chugged across 66 miles’ worth of northwest Ohio, with no one at the controls. Top speed: 47 mph. No injuries. Well. We knew that would never hold for the movie version.