Reviews

'Unstoppable': The Pleasures of Gears

For all of its silliness, Unstoppable shows a keen sense of how to mix movie stars with mayhem.


Unstoppable

Director: Tony Scott
Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Dunn, Kevin Corrigan
Rated: PG-13
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-11-12 (General release)
UK date: 2010-11-24 (General release)
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Trailer

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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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