Tony Scott’s Unstoppable is a nail biting, heart pounding, relentlessly exciting film. It takes most of the reliable hallmarks of the action picture – death defying stunts, crashes, explosions – and strips them to the bare essentials. There’s no posturing, no big muscles and machine guns, no pompous dialogue, no padding of any kind. There’s only a raw, primal adrenaline rush. The result is a film so taut and gripping that you’re liable to lose the feeling in your hands from clenching the armrests on your theater’s chair. It winds itself up at the start and keeps on winding until the spring is ready to break loose; at the end of it all, when the tension is finally released, you will breathe a sigh of relief … and then want to experience it all over again. It’s kind of like riding a roller coaster.
This film represents a purer, healthier attitude towards the action film. It’s great entertainment, yes, but it also has both a brain and a heart at work. Rather than assault us with bursts of noise and flashes of light, we’re pushed into a genuinely frightening scenario and dragged along with nothing but the hope that it will somehow turn out all right. We’re actually made to feel something. Better still, we’re made to care about the characters, who aren’t disposable war-mongering typecasts but ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation. If convention dictates that the key players will become heroes, at least I can take comfort in knowing that this time around, they actually earn that distinction. And no, I don’t care that the film is in all likelihood a gross exaggeration of real life events – I wanted to be thrilled, and thrilled I was.
Unstoppable stars Denzel Washington and Chris Pine as a pair of railroad workers. The former is Frank Barnes, a long time engineer for the Allegheny and West Virginia Railroad. The latter is Will Colson, a rookie conductor. They hit it off like oil and water, Frank and his co-workers believing that Will was hired strictly because of family connections to the union. Despite their differences, they’re assigned to work a locomotive together. Frank makes it clear, perhaps a little too strenuously, that Will should ask about something if he doesn’t know what to do. Will’s personal problems continuously distract him throughout the day; he takes calls he shouldn’t be taking, and eventually, he attaches their locomotive to too many trains. Things just don’t seem to be going well.
And it will only get worse. At another station, a lazy hostler (Ethan Suplee) fails to connect an air hose on a train that’s scheduled to be moved, preventing the air brakes from working. He doesn’t think this will be a problem; he’ll simply hook them up after parking the train on another track. Unfortunately, the switch up ahead is not set for the right track, and when he jumps off the main engine to fix it – a highly frowned upon maneuver – the improperly set throttle shifts on its own, speeding up the train to the point that he can no longer get back on. Not only is the train unmanned, it’s now on the coasting faster and faster along mainline. Will and Frank are also on the mainline. And they’re going in the opposite direction.
Keeping tabs on the escalating situation is yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), who quickly learns that the some of the tanks on the runaway train are carrying a highly hazardous material. She and a number of other dispatchers work tirelessly to get all opposing traffic onto sidings, and this includes a train full of children on a field trip. They begin rallying the state police in the hopes that they can secure guard crossings in various cities. Connie also has to fight an uphill battle with her superior, Oscar Galvin (Kevin Dunn), a corporate typecast unwilling to entertain her idea of derailing the train in lightly populated farmland. Derailing the train would cost the company millions of dollars, and as we all know, money is more important than safety.
I will now refrain from going into detail, since that would ruin the suspense. I will only say that Frank and Will get wind of the situation and decide to stop the runaway train on their own. I will also say that, from here, the film becomes increasingly nerve wracking. Many action movies are about as predictable as a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland backyard musical; with Unstoppable, there’s no telling where it might go. The uncertainty, the sheer anticipation, is so palpable that you may lose your breath from gasping so much.
Action films made as well as Unstoppable have to be treasured, for they show that some filmmakers want to do more than merely exhilarate the audience; they also want to prove that even films about runaway trains can be smart, stylish, and powerful. Watching this film, it’s obvious that serious thought went into the plot and the characters. Serious thought must have gone into casting as well, for everyone involved lends believable, engaging performances. Rosario Dawson in particular is especially good, giving her character just the right balance of professional backbone and personal concern. But most of the credit must be given to Mark Bomback for his convincing screenplay, Chris Lebenzon and Robert Duffy for their editing, and everyone who contributed to stunt work, special effects, and sound. They remembered what an action film is supposed to be.