Hot on the heels of The Taking Of Pelham 123, director Tony Scott reunites with star Denzel Washington for his latest locomotive adventure, Unstoppable. Unlike the previous film, this isn’t based on a well regarded classic. The action takes place above ground and instead of the events being put into place by John Travolta’s OTT antagonist, the chain of events here are caused by human error, as two dim-witted railway engineers cut corners and set into motion a series of actions that leads to an unmanned train, roughly half a mile in length and packed with dangerous materials, heading towards populated areas.
Veteran railroad engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) and newly qualified conductor Will Coulson (Chris Pine) take it upon themselves to chase down the runaway train and save it from decimating the town in which they live.
At the start of the film you’re greeted with the announcement that it’s “Based on real events”and it would seem, from reading up said events after viewing the film, it’s rather more loosely based than it would have audiences believe. Sure, there was an incident with an unmanned train, but it occurred in Ohio rather than Pennsylvania, and by the sounds of things, it was much less dramatic than depicted here. For instance, the train didn’t exceed speeds over 50mph and there’s no mention of cars flipping over. But that wouldn’t have been sufficiently cinematic for Mr. Scott.
From the look and tone of the film, this is unmistakably a Tony Scott project. There are a few moments of madness and there’s a strong sense that he’s not comfortable with the camera staying still for more than a second, but even with that being the case, this is in many ways a much more restrained effort than many of his previous films.
However, certain scenes bear witness to his brand of visual gimmickry, in particular a press conference scene features some bizarre cutaways and sweeping shots when it would have surely been better to have faith in the actors’ ability to carry the scene and remain focussed on them. Still, he’s the visionary director, so who am I to question him?
It’s easy to see why Scott has favoured working with Denzel Washington over the years. The actor has always given solid performances, as he’s adept at portraying the affable everyman and bringing a real sense of quality and believability to projects that perhaps seem beneath him. Indeed, there’s a strong sense that he deserves much better material than what he’s presented with here, but he’s always completely convincing and certainly doesn’t phone in his performance. His work is complemented well by Pine, who’s showing that he has the potential to become a bankable star in his own right.
Whilst Washington and Pine are both great in the lead roles, those on the periphery aren’t really given much to work with and seem to be little more than exposition devices. Rosario Dawson does her best in a role that’s not a million miles away from Washington’s in The Taking Of Pelham 123, and Kevin Dunn is suitably dastardly as Galvin, the company head trying to minimise losses.
The exposition is really quite ridiculous at times. It’s like the filmmakers have no faith at all in the audience’s intelligence, as the majority of the scenes not involving Pine or Washington seem to be there just to remind you of how high the stakes are or to explain in great detail exactly what’s happening at any given moment. It’s like being repeatedly hit over the head with a big exposition stick.
Other frustrating contrivances include having Barnes’ daughters play Hooters waitresses to act as an excuse to have scantily clad ladies on screen, because, obviously, such things are a necessity.
Even with the numerous faults, it’s an entertaining and exciting film when it remains focussed on Washington and Pine. When it deviates and cuts away to peripheral characters and news reports, it loses focus and momentum, drawing attention away from the far more interesting material at the film’s core. It’s a shame, then, that there seems to be a lack of confidence in the story, as there is some great material. It’s just buried under a lot of gimmickry and exposition.
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