Review: Tony Scott's Unstoppable a Charged & Suspenseful Ride
by Jeremy Kirk
November 12, 2010
Denzel Washington is back on the Tony Scott-driven train, literally, now for the second time in a row. Only, this time, John Travolta isn't trying to steal it. Instead, Washington and Chris Pine are trying to stop it. "Trying" being the optimal word. Of course, you can't have a title like Unstoppable without the promise of the action and intensity being laid on thicker than back road tar. Scott, nonstop camera shooting flipping cop cars and all, does just that, and Unstoppable, for all of its melodramatic and sometimes bungling sense of narrative drive, becomes quite the little ride of excitement.
Never mind why the mile-long train in the film is out of control. It's unmanned. It's barreling down the Pennsylvania rails. It's on a collision course with everything in its path. It's essentially the shark from Jaws, out there somewhere, no one 100% sure where, but when it strikes, and it will strike, it's going to leave ample amounts of destruction in its path. Oh yes, it's also carrying highly flammable and combustible material, so that's going to just add to the fun.
Screenwriter Mark Bomback derives a genesis for this awesome locomotive of devastation, but watching those moments unfold becomes cumbersome quickly. Does it really matter where the thing came from? I guess it does when you want to add subplots about the suits at the trail company wanting to stop the thing while causing minimal damage. You also need a dispatcher who is on top of things, something Rosario Dawson wasn't quite born to play. You also need a hero, or, in this case, a pair of heroes. Washington as a soon-to-be-retired engineer and Pine as the rookie conductor the engineer is training fit that bill to a T.
What could easily become tedious with people watching down the rails waiting for the train to plow through whatever objects happen to get in its way actually has the intensity injected deep into it. Scott can direct high-octane action in his sleep. On more than one occasion in his career, he very well could have been doing just that. Not the case with Unstoppable. Sure, the panning camera, the 180-degrees movements around the locomotive our would-be heroes are occupying, all the Tony Scott trademarks become a little banal. We've had over 20 years of them. Thankfully, the aggressiveness of the situation at hand helps add to the overall suspense of Unstoppable, Scott cliches abounding or not.
The comradery between Washington and Pine helps immensely, as well. Like any good buddy movie, particularly one with a veteran and a rookie teaming up, they can't stand each other at first. The hard-headed newbie doesn't like to be wrong, hates it even more when his errors are pointed out to him. The aged, experienced, almost Zen-like in the peace he emotes warhorse is never wrong. They butt heads on a number of occasions before the gigantic missile on rails gets put in their path.
Individually, the two work well. Washington's comfort level with either Scott brother has to be at its peak at this point, but the actor never comes off like he's going through the motions. Pine is equally focused and charismatic here even if his character doesn't have the most sympathetic of back-stories. Even when they're butting heads, you never feel a barrier between them. They are both fully in these moments. Once the out-of-control train presents itself, though, the two come together almost brilliantly, springing to action in an attempt to stop it. All the while the two come across as if they've done a dozen films together.
It's at this point where Unstoppable, exciting and fervent in its first half, really steps it up a notch. The last half of the film is edge-of-your seat material. Neither Scott's camera tricks nor Bomback's histrionic screenplay nor actor Kevin Dunn's personification of everything corporately evil can push you back from that edge. It's simply a highly charged series of events all being shot and edited together with a similar sense of fierceness.
Unstoppable doesn't hold back on the family dramas at hand, either. Both Washington and Pine's character have their respective stories, and each of these stories are given time to percolate in the audience's mind well before the real action of the film's third act kicks in. The dynamic of who these men are outside of this one event in their lives feels genuine, one of the most genuine things about Bomback's screenplay, and it only help add to the excitement when we see them step up and become the heroes of the story.
This is probably why Unstoppable works so very well. The film is extremely intense, full of excitement, action, and, yes, flipping cop cars. However, deep down, it's more than a run-of-the-mill actioner with cookie cutter personalities trudging through the melodramatic jungle. These are individuals we actually care about, and watching them go from opposing forces to having to bond in order to stop a force much greater than themselves is the sincerest form of drama. Unstoppable, for all if its popcorn charm and seemingly mindless course of narrative progression, becomes a thing of true exhilaration, an action film that grasps the viewers attention and doesn't let go for 90 minutes.
A phrase that is used all too commonly in regards to action films is "check your brain at the door." With Unstoppable, you thankfully don't have to do that in order to enjoy it. The style, scope, and vigorousness at work here will engage even the most cynical of viewers, and, when all is said and done, the ride you will be experiencing will only have you clamoring for more.
Jeremy's Rating: 8 out of 10