The last time Denzel Washington and Tony Scott made a movie about a hijacked train, they subverted all expectations for a Tony Scott action movie by leaving their vehicle parked in a subway tunnel for most of the running time. Granted, they were remaking The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, which is indeed a movie about a train parked in a subway tunnel, not a runaway locomotive. But they may have sensed that a corrective was in order, because after Pelham, they jumped almost immediately into Unstoppable, their fifth collaboration. In this one, the train moves.
No train engine, though, can keep up with Scott’s camera, which is more suited to a runaway helicopter. You might say that Unstoppable actually represents Scott at mid-speed; he’s operated in a variety of gears during the past couple of decades, but his work with Washington (with the notable exception of the nutty Man on Fire) seems to calm him down, as if the actor’s weighty presence encourages the filmmaker from cutting his own movie to frantic pieces.
Unstoppable still has plenty of circle-pans and jittery mini-zooms, but for the first half or so, Scott sets up his straight-ahead premise almost methodically; the movie rolls to life slowly, train-like, taking in the atmosphere of its rural Pennsylvania surroundings and the noisy pleasures of gears moving into place. Scott walks us through the mishaps that cause a half-mile-length train to barrel ahead, unmanned, at over 70 miles an hour, carrying a variety of toxic chemicals—it’s caused by human error, not an ambitious madman. The only bad guy is the corporate stooge Galvin (Kevin Dunn), who hems and haws about which solution will save the train company the most money, rather than the most lives.
While station master Connie (Rosario Dawson) bickers with Galvin from a lower-key version of the control rooms Scott so loves to showcase, we check in with veteran engineer Frank (Washington) and newbie conductor Will (Chris Pine). The movie follows the pair as they labor and get on each other’s nerves, each dealing with personal problems ranging from disaster-movie boilerplate (Will has an estranged wife) to basic sitcom (Frank forgets his daughter’s birthday). This warm-up to eventual heroics isn’t revelatory, but Washington and Pine both play it well, grounded and believable for attractive movie stars playing working-class stiffs.
This extends to Dawson, and to Kevin Corrigan, playing against shifty type as a nerdy safety inspector who offers some impromptu train-stopping advice. Unstoppable won’t be mistaken for social realism, but its characters have a blue-collar weariness more convincing than, say, the plain-folks affectations of Michael Bay’s aggrandizing Armageddon. Later in the movie, when Frank and Will finally enlist themselves to save the day, they exchange backstories in between radio chatter with Connie as they approach the “missile the size of the Chrysler Building,” and the scene is a tense delight—the heroes come off as playful and a little nervous, rather than cocksure.
By this point, Scott has broken into full-on helicopter-swirl, pointless-edits mode, sometimes stepping on his own suspense. Least necessary are his frequent cuts back to local news broadcasts, repeating information about the trains and characters that most people could discern from, you know, just watching the damn movie. The lively, sometimes subtle exchanges between Frank and just about anyone make anonymous Fox affiliate anchors seem all the more intrusive.
Even amid such busy-ness, however, the movie looks great. Ben Seresin’s cinematography, heavy on industrial greens and blues reminiscent of previous Scott/Washington pulp jobs Déjà Vu and Pelham, captures dewy, overcast scenery. Though it moves faster, Unstoppable could be seen as a rural version of Pelham: both movies observe a cross-section of their communities responding to a potential disaster. This contrast gives Unstoppable another edge: there are better New York City crime movies than the Pelham remake (Washington himself appeared in a superior one, Inside Man, just a few years ago), but at present, Unstoppable is the best runaway-train-in-Pennsylvania movie I’ve seen.
But whichever Scottized version of railways in peril one prefers, nothing brings disparate groups together like cop cars flipping over for no reason, a favorite stunt repeated here. For all of its silliness, Unstoppable shows a keen sense of how to mix movie stars with mayhem. Scott may be an overgrown kid playing with his train set, but at this speed, he’s a hell of a fun hobbyist.