Directed by Tony Scott
Screenplay by Mark Bomback
Denzel Washington as Frank Barnes
Chris Pine as Will Colson
Rosario Dawson as Connie Hooper
Kevin Dunn as Galvin
Ethan Suplee as Dewey.
Jessy Schram as Darcy Colson
Running time: 95 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and peril, and some language.
“I hear the train a-comin’…”
Johnny Cash probably would not have written a song about this train, and it lacks the proper edge for Bruce Springsteen to step to the plate either. Nonetheless, Unstoppable is a suitably entertaining movie for a season decidedly short on enjoyable thrills. It is simple without crossing into brainlessness. It is not exactly deep, given its more or less stock characters and age-old dramatic framework of proud working family men versus the big bad corporation. But if you want fast trains and lots of them, mister, we’ve got ’em.
The movie boasts a respectable cast and a decent script. The primary players – Chris Pine, Denzel Washington, Rosario Dawson, and Lew Temple – do their jobs very nicely. I counted only one major dialogue misfire. In this day and age, no one has the excuse to resurrect the old disaster movie crutch of describing your problem as “the size of the Chrysler building.” For me, that line is a tired old horse that needs shooting, along with “Failure is not an option.”
So here’s the trouble: a shiftless rail yard engineer accidentally puts the throttle to an unmanned, fully loaded freight train carrying, among other things, a large cargo of dangerous chemicals. Even given an indefinite stretch of obstacle-free track, the deadly train is certain to derail at the major waypoint of Stanton, Pennsylvania, where it will explode and deal major destruction to the local population. It is an all-too-perfect disaster casserole.
Pine and Washington, our leading men, do good work. They play likable, believable characters who just want to get home to their kids. We all know the setup. The rookie with a chip on his shoulder and plenty to prove gets paired with the veteran engineer who’s seen it all, or thinks he has. They both have a shot at saving the day, and overcoming their differences, when they become the last hope for stopping the train. Since this is a film about working class heroes, it goes without saying that they must risk their lives against the orders of their cold, money-hungry superiors, whose cut-price attempts at handling the situation only compound the danger. The film is loosely inspired by a true-life adventure which took place about ten years ago. Without knowing anything about the incident, it is fairly easy to pick out where the facts end and the embellishment begins in this film.
The story is just substantial enough to tie all the screeching, sparking train chases together. We get to see large stretches of beautiful Pennsylvania woods as the trains blaze through them. We get a completely over-the-top but satisfying climax which, for once, the film’s trailer did not give away. When dealing with a movie like this, sit back and enjoy the fact that it’s just all right, and not merely some cruddy, vulgar extended set piece. It takes a while to get going, with the mild annoyance of a big red herring. Remember in the trailer about the trainload of kids on a collision course with the runaway? They don’t do very much with that. Without giving up any crucial details, I will say that I didn’t want to see children or small animals get smeared in this film, but the possibility lurked, and I was curious how far Tony Scott would push. But despite the scale of the danger, this movie is not a limit-pusher. It is not “Robert Rodriguez presents Doom Train To Juarez” or anything of the kind. However, once things do get moving, and all available hands mobilize to get matters in order, the momentum builds steadily until we begin to worry that the train might indeed be unstoppable.
Tony Scott has found a great asset in Denzel Washington, and vice versa. A competent buddy team of actor and director can do great things. Their collaborations, such as Crimson Tide and Man On Fire, have enjoyed mixed critical success but have been mostly popular and profitable with audiences.
Denzel Washington is a versatile and dynamic leading man. Some of his films are fantastic, and others not, but he has the gift of elevating even a mediocre story with his presence. As it happens, this is one of the pretty good ones, not destined for immortality, but a solid piece of work nonetheless. As roles go, it is not one of Washington’s edgy surprises (who remembers Training Day?) but instead one of those authoritative and trustworthy guys we encountered in Remember The Titans and The Manchurian Candidate. Washington has the range to play just about anybody, and as he ages he will surely inherit the mantle of the venerated guy-in-charge actors – Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, and so on.
This is the kind of movie we should have been seeing all summer of this dismal year. It is exciting, upbeat, and suitable for whatever group you feel like taking to the movies. No sex, no interpersonal violence, and no disturbing themes beyond the prospect of getting hit by a train. The script is moderately heavy on the swearing, but still nothing to cable TV, or what you’d probably hear from real railroad engineers. There is nothing gratuitous here, in other words, which signals the director’s interest in the story. At heart it is a drama, not merely the contrived chase film you may have been expecting.
Looking beyond the runaway train, Unstoppable is an on-the-nose fable about making noble choices and never giving up. And what’s wrong with that? A positive message without a trace of irony is a nice change now and then. Don’t expect any big surprises, astounding plot twists, or dark character secrets. It is all standard-issue small-town hero stuff. Mind-blowing? Nope. Predictable? Yes, fairly. But entertaining? Also yes. If you know that going in, then a healthy serving of good, clean, destructive fun awaits you.