Half of the iconic Scott Free Productions, Tony Scott, in this run away train movie, provides plenty of action and fast paced tension. Really, for a movie about a train, it’s a lot better than you’d expect. Unstoppable makes for an enjoyable time even if it confines itself to the trappings of most actioners: 2 men, 1 task, a race around the clock, yadda yadda yadda. Yes it’s an old formula but it still works.
It still it feels like Tony is always making films that try to be like his big brother Ridley’s but he always seems to fall short in terms of graneur and scale. As Ridley goes the more epic route and has an amazing track record, Tony has never made a bad movie per se and is more than capable with providing a solid actioner.
The story of two men, of different views and lifestyles, teaming up for some kind of collaborative effort to take down a foe is one most film fans know well. Yet in this case, the foe is a half mile long fright train bound to obliterate a sleepy Pennsylvania town. Were it not for the blatant incompetence of Ethan Suplee, this gentle giant train would be safely in the rail yard. But, he hops off the train to switch the track leaving the train under power, trips and the train is off to the races. In the mix are a number of people trying to help, from Rosario Dawson, to a mid level train exec Kevin Dunn but in the end it’s Chris Pine and Denzel Washington and them alone to the rescue. While the story seems simple and believable enough, the attempts to stop the train don’t seem to have been that well thought out. Most of them seem implausible if not ridiculous. Regardless in this case, any idea could be viewed as a good idea. Especially since the train isn’t hauling something harmless like milk, no, this train is hauling numerous cars full of highly explosive chemicals…dun dun dun. Isn’t that always the case though?
While a Tony Scott film is known to boast big league talent, he tries to focus on a core group of individuals, and (as my Scott counter goes) tries to have no more than 4 core main characters. With a film called Unstoppable you can pretty much expect that no one is going to have anything close to a legitimate character arc, but the film really doesn’t keep from trying. In the beginning of the film there we find a down on his luck Pine (reasons explained further), and Washington with a comparable unhappy home life. There are meager attempts to endear the characters to us; Denzel playing the seasoned no nonsense conductor and Pine the young hot shot. Not too many life lessons can be learned form their exchanges in the short amount of time, but the task at hand challenges their will. They play well of one another (being really the only two main characters with actual face time) but there’s nothing outstanding about their performances or their roles.
From solid acting (Denzel could play a jaded “been there, done that” character in his sleep) to decent writing, the tense music from longtime Scott collaborator Harry Gregson Williams, Unstoppable is a respectable win in all categories. Yet the standout element here is actually the cinematography. The way you keep a train movie from being boring is to keep it moving. No I don’t mean keep the train moving, but so many shots were either wide angle passes over the area, a circular sweep of a small room or really quick shots. Each of those methods gives such an energy to each scene. Ever so much more than if we just watched Rosario Dawson (in a static shot) look at a train map and get frazzled while talking to Pine/Washington over a speaker phone. Much of the story was told with very quick cuts in typical Tony Scott style. To me, the rapid scene transitions seem to resemble/emulate glimpses of how a train looks as it passes you by…but maybe I’m looking to much into it.
While the only thing that detracted from the action and suspense in watching a 70+ mile an hour train bullet to impending doom is to see the train is really only travelling about 20 or so in a number of sequences. But it is a movie and “safety first” takes priority. Amazingly, so much of the action was done sans CGI and the practical effects and a real live train helped sell the gravity of the story and did so with far less explosions than expected.
Scott de-saturates his films giving a gruffness and a realism to the settings…fitting for the industrial northeast I’d say. Also on a near technical note, as the train was the star of the film, it was given some near animal sounds (maybe a nod to Spielberg’s Duel), Scott paints the train as an relentless villain. Not evil but like fire, one that demands respect and most scenes showcased it’s awesome power, even in the still shots. For instance, in one of the opening shots you get a humbling shots where Pine and Washington walk the rail yard. Scott pans the frame in a way that give a very majestic sense to the trains. Hey I found it interesting.
“Inspired by true events” is always a funny tagline. After seeing Unstoppable, it’s fair to assume that this film’s “true events” had 1. a train 2. a chase and the rest was left to Tony Scott and screen writer Mark Bomback for whatever liberties may have been depicted on screen. While the middle of the film was certainly exciting, the one gripe I find is that there could have been more extraneous attempts to stop the train. But Pine and Washington are the heroes so it’s up to them when all esle fails. Just a little tied up at the end with some laughs to ease the tension but still Unstoppable was a fun ride all the way.