Ever since his success in 1986 with Top Gun, Tony Scott has specialised almost exclusively in big, noisy, high-concept entertainments such as Déjà Vu and Man On Fire. Unstoppable sees the director once again reunited with his leading man of choice, Denzel Washington, for a bombastic disaster thriller about a runaway train.
Being a Tony Scott film, this isn’t just any runaway train, but a half-mile long freighter filled with deadly chemicals. Or, as one character sensationally puts it, “A MISSILE THE SIZE OF THE CHRYSLER BUILDING!”
Based loosely on a real incident that occurred in 2001, Unstoppable relocates the setting to Southern Pennsylvania and kicks up the action a few notches, adding extra perils (creatures in harm’s way include a badger and a horse), arguments and gratuitous scenes of macho heroism.
Before all that, we’re introduced to the cast. Chris Pine plays young rookie train driver Will Colson, while Washington is a seasoned railroad professional called Frank Barnes. Rosario Dawson is Connie, the voice of reason in the control room, and Kevin Dunn plays a corporate villain who cares more about more about protecting his expensive train than the town it’s about to obliterate.
Due to a mixture of negligence and bad luck, what begins as a freighter coasting out of control quickly becomes a high-speed train on the rampage, and after several abortive attempts to bring it back under control go awry, it’s left to blue-collar heroes Barnes and Colson to wrestle the beast to a halt.
Scott, along with cinematographer Ben Seresin, capture the grit and grime of working life on a train successfully, and there are moments where the weight and grinding power of these huge machines really hits home.
It’s in moments of conversation where Unstoppable really falters. At no point does Scott’s camera keep still, and even incidental scenes – someone talking on a phone, or Ethan Suplee eating a pie – are captured with the same epic, sweeping shots. It’s as though Unstoppable’s makers were terrified of its audience losing interest, and the result is distracting in the extreme.
Mark Bomback’s leaden script doesn’t help, either. It feels the need to explain all events in mind-numbing detail, either through lengthy exposition from resident experts, or via computer graphics helpfully provided by Fox News reporters.
And when Dawson’s character is told that the train’s somehow slipped out of control, her response is, enigmatically, “It’s a train, Dewey, not a chipmunk”.
Unstoppable is shot, scripted and acted with a heightened sense of melodrama that often borders on the surreal. Ethan Suplee is marked out early on as the incompetent, gluttonous fool who lets the train off the leash (and to ram the point home, his face is later shown plastered all over Fox News with the words “Negligent clot” or similar emblazoned beneath), and we can tell Kevin Dunn is evil because he wears a suit and shouts a lot.
Denzel Washington’s Frank, by contrast, is unfailingly virtuous and wise. He can gauge the sum length of 25 train carriages at a glance, and his predictions on other rail-related matters are never, ever wrong. One of Unstoppable’s most common phrases is, in fact, “Frank’s right,” which would probably serve as a better name for the film.
Admittedly, there are moments where Unstoppable is genuinely gripping. The $100 million budget manifests itself in some spectacular practical stunts that a more financially austere film would have probably tackled with CGI, which I won’t spoil by describing here.
But Unstoppable slips far too easily into Hollywood thriller cliché to really satisfy. Its salt of the earth heroes all have woman troubles, wayward daughters or a few days until retirement, and there’s a potentially suicidal plan that might just work.
As a piece of multiplex entertainment, Unstoppable is enjoyable enough, but for both Tony Scott and Denzel Washington, it’s familiar, unchallenging territory.
For your humble reviewer, Unstoppable’s most wonderful, engaging moment occurred approximately one hour in. As the runaway train comes hurtling towards the camera from the middle distance, a badger bravely hops across the tracks. It could have been a stunt badger, ushered out by an unseen crew member hiding in the undergrowth, I suppose, but I like to think it was a wonderful moment of serendipity captured on camera by accident.
In a film that tries to hard to thrill the audience with lots of shouting, hyperactive camerawork and noise, it was, ironically, this single flash of incidental joy that had me on my feet, cheering.
Go, Unstoppable badger!
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