[12 November 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Recently, the action film has been overwhelmed by an industry-perceived need for constant reinvention. It’s not good enough to have an old fashioned edge of your seat thriller with simple set-ups and well-executed and paced payoffs. Instead, everything must be hyperactive and hyper-stylized, heroes no longer everyday Joes and their villains ‘almost’ undefeatable entities of mass destruction. It’s all about being bigger, badder, and more bombastic - with daunting directorial flare to match. So it’s refreshing to see Tony Scott eschew the post-modern aesthetic to helm the solid ‘70s throwback Unstoppable. With its simplistic plot, easy to read leads, and diesel engine overdrive delights, we can forgive its eventual lack of heft. In fact, superficiality was never quite so fun.
It’s a typical day at a train yard outside Scranton, Pennsylvania. A pair of bumbling workers accidentally send a locomotive carrying tons of freight and thousands of gallons of molten phenol (a highly combustible and caustic substance) racing down the tracks. In its way? A passenger train loaded with school kids on a field trip, all other traffic on said line, and perhaps worst of all, a dangerous curve above the heavily populated PA city. If Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), a train dispatcher, can’t stop the engine in time, thousands could potentially die. Luckily, old hat engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) is showing novice conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine) the ropes. When they learn of the runaway express, they decide to give chase, hoping to use their own cars as a way of slowing it down. If not, nothing can stop the unconscionable destruction.
Breezily blowing by without much backstory or post-modern mannerism, Unstoppable is a solid cinematic diversion. It’s a no-brainer, a clear cut jump-to-your-feet crowd pleaser with everything designed to keep you eagerly engaged and wrapped in suspense. For his part, Scott still loves his aesthetic gimmicks. Shots will suddenly zoom in for no reason and a couple of chase scenes suffer from a relatively calm yet shaky handy-cam conceit. What the director is really driving at, however, is something inexcusably basic - deadly machine with the power to destroy, out of control and seemingly…unstoppable. Of course, this being Hollywood, nothing is beyond hope. Enter Washington and Pine, a pair of naturally likeable actors with male machismo chemistry to spare. Even as they work through the slight personal problems in their life (Frank’s a widower, Will’s wife has a restraining order out against him), we just know they are going to succeed.
There are things that really don’t work here. The script by Mark Bomback suffers from a bad case of over-exposition. Using new reports and the 24 hour cable cycle as an excuse, the action is frequently broken up so that another dim bulb talking head with a microphone can remind us of what is going on - sometimes directly after we’ve seen it with our own eyes. Some could argue for the concept’s inherent ability to cause anxiety and dread. Others would simply state that it’s annoying as Hell. Similarly, the bumbling bureaucrats heading up the train’s main office are so slight as to barely resonate villainy. When Rosario Dawson’s salt of the earth supervisor gets into it with these button down boneheads, there’s no question of who will come out on top.
Equally problematic is all the train speak. Unstoppable assumes a lot of locomotive things, and the audience occasionally gets lost. There are times when the conversations remind one of the classic Monty Python skit where the writer of a murder mystery uses the country’s rail time table as his entire literary reason for being. At least in the third act, when Washington and Pine are chugging away to the rescue, we get how their plan is supposed to work. We also understand the threat, though the notion that molten phenol is mostly used in the making of glue will have more than a few audience members giggling.
Perhaps the larger issue here is how retro Unstoppable is. Look back at the last few years and you will hardly see anything like it. This isn’t Wanted (which had its own vertigo inspiring train sequence to deal with) or the inflated ego epics of Michael Bay. Instead, Scott keeps things isolated, working within the practical premise of engine, power, and threat. Of course, he has to sprinkle some CG in there toward the end, though most of the movie appears crafted out of actual locations and real (or at the very least, realistic) railroad elements.
Still, one gets the nagging suspicion that those too young to remember the excellent ‘80s Jon Voight/Eric Roberts vehicle Runaway Train will be left cold by Scott’s broad, by-the-numbers approach. They want the plentiful pyrotechnics of the new world action vision. They could care less about character or emotional attachment (though, in its defense, Unstoppable avoids those as well). Like Big Jim McBob and Billy Saul Hurok from the brilliant satire SCTV, they just want to see stuff blow up - blow up “REAL GOOD!” - and while Scott delivers in the boom crash opera department, the rest of the movie is too subdued to fully fascinate the prominent demo. Adults and fans of less drastic heroism will definitely enjoy the ride. The rest will lament the lack of pizzazz and probably pass - and that’s too bad. Unstoppable may not be great, but it’s damn good.