Tony Scott and Denzel Washington follow their successful remake of “The Taking of Pelham 123” with yet another train movie called “Unstoppable.” Kind of makes you wonder if they next plan to remake “The Great Train Robbery.” Well it don’t matter because “Unstoppable” is a superbly made action movie that ratchets up the tension throughout its 98 minute running time. Starring with Denzel in this “Runaway Train” for the new millennium is Chris Pine, the young Captain Kirk from “Star Trek.” They work together to stop this “coaster” before it creates more damage and yet still find the time to trade barbs with each other while begrudgingly earning their respect. You know, typical action movie male bonding.
Denzel Washington plays veteran railroad engineer Frank Barnes, a widower with two daughters working at Hooters. On this fateful day, Frank is partnered up with a young train conductor named Will Colson (played by Pine). The old timers at the station are instantly suspicious of Colson and figure that he got this job through family connections. Colson never flaunts these so-called connections, but it doesn’t matter. When it comes to these old-timer and newbie relationships, you know the old-timer is gonna put the newbie in his place more than once. Of course, it does help when he listens to the newbie from time to time.
So how does the train ends up becoming a runaway? Well, there’s this slovenly engineer Dewey (Ethan Suplee) who starts up the train with the intention of moving it out of the way for others coming in. But then he sees the track ahead of him hasn’t been switched over correctly, so he gets out of the front car while it is still moving to switch it himself. The thinking is that the train will miss the switch before it has room to stop. But what do you know, the lever suddenly slips and puts the train into high gear, and off it goes with Dewey unable to climb back on. Oh yeah, the air hose between the locomotive and the rest of the train is disconnected, so stopping the train dead in its track will be a bit more challenging than usual. From there, the train continues to increase in speed and destroying everything in its path, completely indiscriminate about what it hits.
In the midst of all this, everyone soon finds out that there is a highly toxic substance contained in some of the cars which if mishandled can lead to an utter catastrophe. But the corporation that owns those chemicals becomes more concerned about their profit margin dropping horrifically, and they seek to take care of the train situation. But when Denzel and Chris see a way to bring this speeding bullet to a halt, they uncouple their cars and speed after it at lightning speed. They are warned to stop what they are doing, but we revel in the fun of watching our locomotive heroes stick it to the man!
Are there logistical plot holes in “Unstoppable?” Probably, but the movie goes by so fast that there isn’t much time to analyze what’s going on (unless of course you know a lot about trains). I get a kick out of how they always find a way to make the trains run even when no one is manning the dead man’s switch. That one device that can be counted on to keep a train from running amuck continues to get more and more vulnerable, and there are even reasons NOT to use as the train moves like a missile out of everyone’s control. I was beginning to wonder why I don’t bother using trains as a form of transportation…
Tony Scott brings his usual style of hyperkinetic filmmaking to this story, but it actually feels a bit more restrained this time compared to his previous efforts like the “Pelham” remake and (most especially) “Domino.” He lets the tension in the story continue to build and never lets it peak too early, and he has us on the edge of our seats in the last half of the movie. Also, he shows us visually how a train can have very few options in avoiding an oncoming one. If you are not on a part of a track where you can get switched over, you’re screwed! Say what you will about Tony’s style of directing; after all these years he appears to be doing a better job than ever making action movies.
“Unstoppable” also benefits greatly from an increasingly propulsive music score from Scott’s collaborator from his last few movies, Harry Gregson-Williams. Throughout his career, Williams has done highly energetic work in combining an orchestra with electronic music to create a score that gets your adrenaline up in no time. With this movie, his music complements the size and power of this runaway train as well as its booming sound that announces to the world just how powerful it is.
As for the actors, they are all perfectly chosen, and there’s no beating Denzel in anything he does. Denzel and Chris have great chemistry with each other onscreen as they trade barbs but of course find a camaraderie that is inevitable when you are trying to stop a conductor-less train. Both are great in making their characters real and human, and not just some stock characters lazily resurrected to give what studios think audiences want. They are a key part of this film’s success as they anchor us into the action emotionally, and we find ourselves genuinely rooting for them instead of just sitting back and watching passively.
Another great performance in “Unstoppable” comes from Rosario Dawson as train yardmaster Connie Hooper. She holds her own against the abundance of testosterone and is very believable in a role which has her finding a perfect balance between being hard nosed and in peoples’ faces to being understanding and giving her trust to others who actually know what they’re doing. She’s always an engaging presence in any movie she is in, and this represents some of her best work to date.
“Unstoppable” really aims to be nothing more than slam bang entertainment, and that it is. It has taut action, characters that are likable as well as relatable, and it never loses any steam (no pun intended) on its way to a breakneck climax. It was a very fun time at the movies watching this one, and its very reassuring to see a movie like this actually live up to its promise.
***½ out of ****