Unstoppable (United States, 2010)November 10, 2010
Unstoppable, a 95-minute thrill ride from director Tony Scott, delivers the right level of adrenaline. Unfortunately, the sheer exhilaration is dampened somewhat by an overreliance upon action/thriller stock situations and characters. When the production concentrates on the action, which includes dangerous activities and a race against time, Unstoppable delivers. However, the incorporation of clichéd back stories for key characters, a fractious relationship between the protagonists, and an unnecessary villain - all elements lifted from the Screenwriter's Handbook - provide moments of unwelcome and unnecessary annoyance.
It's a difficult thing to craft a motion picture in which the bad guy is a runaway train. There's no way to put a human face on the antagonist - it's soulless and uncaring. The central struggle is therefore more impersonal. Some movies of this ilk are assembled better than others, but the crutches filmmakers rely upon in these circumstances are often not as effective as they might wish. Unstoppable reminds me of Twister, although it's fractionally more suspenseful and considerably less cheesy. Still, it employs a contrived conflict between the protagonists and throws in a human opponent (in this case, a petty bureaucrat) rather than having faith that the story, stripped to its essentials, can stand on its own. We don't need to know that Will Colson (Chris Pine) is fighting a restraining order filed by his wife in order to appreciate the chances he takes. We don't need to understand that the love of his two daughters is what motivates Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) to risk his life. The initial bickering between the two characters does not make their eventual cooperation more meaningful. And, as villains go, Kevin Dunn is reduced to irrelevancy by a very big, very fast-moving train.
Unstoppable is "inspired by true events," which is a technically accurate statement, although considerable license has been taken to amplify the tension and make the situation more cinematic. The historical basis for Unstoppable is a May 15, 2001 incident in which an unmanned CSX train became a runaway, covering 66 miles in Ohio in under two hours before being stopped in a manner similar (albeit less dramatic) to what is depicted in the movie. Many of the specifics - how the train ended up under power without anyone on board, how the police reacted, and what the railway operators did to minimize injuries and damage - reflect what happened in the real world. The characters, however, are completely made-up.
Will is a rookie and Frank is a veteran, and therein lies the kernel of their mutual disdain. Will doesn't like being looked down upon for his inexperience; Frank is annoyed because the company is bringing on board low-paid, inexperienced workers to replace lifers like him. While these two are in the "getting to know you" phase of their relationship, bad things are happening elsewhere on the main line: a series of mishaps and errors results in an unmanned train leaving its station and accelerating to an alarming speed. At first, it's thought to be a "coaster" that can be easily overtaken and stopped. It doesn't take long, however, for train dispatcher Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), to realize the train is not only under power but is rushing headlong into a heavily populated area - and (of course, to up the ante) that several of the cars are filled with toxic, flammable chemicals. Will and Frank are on a collision course with the train and, if they can survive their game of chicken, they may be the only hope of stopping it before it heads for certain derailment in the midst of a Pennsylvania city with a population of 750,000.
Tony Scott, who is arguably one of the most uneven action/thriller directors working today, is at the top of his game for this movie. He keeps the visual flourishes to a minimum and relies sparingly on handheld shots. The film's look is clean and almost classical, with well framed shots and not a lot of quick cutting. Some visual variety is provided by incorporating local "newscast footage." Scott frequently films the train from in front and below, enhancing its menace, and the sound effects make it sound like an angry beast as it roars past. The situation is carefully explained so it becomes clear there's more at stake than the lives of two men. At times, Unstoppable plays like an inverted Speed, with the mandate of getting the train's speed below a threshold to avoid disaster.
It's almost impossible to write about a runaway train movie without mentioning Andrei Konchalovsky's 1985 thriller, Runaway Train. The two films are actually quite different, with Runaway Train focusing on escaping an impending disaster while this one is about averting it. Nevertheless, the clock is ticking in both narratives and the level of suspense ramps up the closer things come to the point of no return.
Scott smartly keeps the running time short and avoids spending too much time on the distracting, made-up back stories and character interaction. Unstoppable is about racing to cheat disaster and, for the most part, that's where the filmmakers keep the focus. The goal is to elevate the heart rate and produce a few nail marks on armrests. Because it achieves that, it's easy to forgive the occasional detour to the cinematic scrap pile of stock parts to plug certain narrative holes. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine are confident and relaxed in these roles, embodying all that's necessary for a working class hero. Name recognition is an important reason for their casting, but their presence aids in identification with the characters. Ultimately, in the face of the awesome power of a half-mile long train barreling along at 70 mph, the efforts of two men seems a paltry thing, and it's the combined sense of heroism and desperation with high stakes that offers Unstoppable at least a chance of fulfilling the promise of its name at the box office.
Unstoppable (United States, 2010)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Mark Bomback
Cinematography: Ben Seresin
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams