November 24, 2010 Leave a comment
Apparently bored with neither Denzel Washington nor trains yet (after a consecutive run of three films starring Washington, with the previous, The Taking of Pelham 123, also involving trains), Tony Scott has with Unstoppable attempted to make what is probably the most straightforward and easily placed genre film of his entire career. Stylistically and thematically, Scott is a divisive action auteur, though audiences may be pleased to see him reigning in his exuberant M.O. a little here; that is to say, he edits with a less epileptic sensibility, and opts for a gritty rather than colourful palette on which to shoot his disaster flick, even if Unstoppable is ultimately no match for the King of the Gimmick Thriller, Speed.
After a pin-headed employee of the train company, Dewey (Ethan Suplee), allows a train to leave the yard unmanned, with the air-brakes cut, carrying tonnes of hazardous chemicals, rolling into populated territory (with regard to both other trains on the track, and the impending residential areas), it is up to two conductors – a trainee, Will Colson (Chris Pine), and a 28-year veteran, Frank Barnes (Washington), who have been paired together that day – to stop it.
It is the admirable simplicity of Unstoppable that ultimately makes it work; it isn’t needlessly complicated or filled with “energising” twists, and is, perhaps to a fault, a thoroughly predictable, if well-staged thriller about two down-and-outers doing what the big-wigs wouldn’t. The inevitable emotional ties are almost laughably perfunctory, slotted in, of course, with a certain calculated precision, though for the most part barely presented with enough registering enthusiasm to make one wonder why they even bothered in the first place. Long story short, Will has an estranged wife and son, while Denzel has two daughters, a dead wife, and a chip on his shoulder that the company are giving him the short shrift in favour of younger workers. That is all you need to know (and more) about Unstoppable, and indeed, one of its biggest strengths is its efficiency.
Unstoppable is one of the few films in Tony Scott’s oeuvre that runs in at under 120 minutes; Hell, it’s actually less than 100! Scott’s commendable restraint in not layering on the dramatic platitudes keeps things moving along quickly enough, such that despite being inalienably predictable, this thriller will keep you conscious and alert for its runtime. Second to Scott, Washington is always the welcome face, almost without fail raising the class of a production a few notches by his mere participation in it. Here he is exceptionally well-cast as the cantankerous but savagely resourceful old timer, who goes to bat for the very company who are about to kick him out the back door. Chris Pine, while less impactful, is nevertheless still solid, striking up a palpable comeraderie with Washington, with their relaxed rapport making it easy to root for this rag-tag team.
Like Speed, Unstoppable is an exercise in slinging as many concievable problems as possible at the heroes, giving the impression that the odds are insurmountable, and they are better off just jumping off the train and going home. While the hurdles are a sight more predictable and a lot less thrilling than Jan de Bont’s film, Scott again earns points for restraining his better-trained action aesthetic, opting for simply effective coverage of the action, and rather refreshingly, dealing mostly with organic stuntwork, using CGI with a very strict economy, to the point that it is barely noticeable.
Without Washington and Pine, this could very well have been a TV movie of the week; effective enough though offering very little to distinguish it from any run-of-the-mill suspense actioner, it is an interesting step for director Scott, who makes a few unexpectedly on-the-mark moves, though the predictability puts a dent in the fun factor, as never once is there a pronounced sense of threat with which to get the heart pounding.