Unstoppable marks the fifth collaboration between Tony Scott and Denzel Washington as well as the second time in a row the pair get to play with trains. Their working relationship has yielded some good (Man on Fire) and some bad (Déjà Vu). You can count Unstoppable as one of the good. It’s a slick flick powered with enough blue-collar testosterone to keep an entire fleet of Amtrak locomotives running.
Loosely based on actual events, Unstoppable features Washington as veteran rail man, Frank Barnes, who is in charge of training new conductor, Will Coulson (Chris Pine). Barnes isn’t thrilled because this snot-nosed kid is taking a job away from another old timer like himself. Coulson doesn’t endear himself after making a series of mistakes on his first day behind the wheel. Meanwhile, someone else has made a mistake far worse. In a hurry to go to lunch, a slack-jawed goof by the name of Dewey (Ethan Suplee) steps out of the cab to switch tracks and accidentally leaves his train under power. Hey, that’s what you get for putting Willem from Mallrats in charge. I mean, the guy couldn’t even see the sailboat in that picture.
The runaway train begins picking up speed sending the railroad company into a tizzy to regain control. The train not only carries a large amount of diesel fuel, but several cars of toxic chemicals. It’s also heading into heavily populated areas. Not to mention there’s a dead man’s curve ahead that’s directly above a fuel depot. Oh, and a train full of elementary school students on a field trip is traveling on a collision course. Barnes and Coulson take it upon themselves to gun their locomotive in reverse in the hopes of catching up to the train and slowing it down.
Is it a little ludicrous? No, it’s plenty ludicrous. Unstoppable is everything it’s advertised to be, unapologetic schlock. This is a fast-paced action movie full of energy and white-knuckle tension. Yes, we know the heroes will eventually succeed, but the film keeps you on the edge of your seat and gripping your armrests. Credit should go to a surprisingly restrained Tony Scott. He and older brother Ridley Scott could mount a big-budget blockbuster in their sleep. While Ridley has dipped his feet in various genres like sci-fi (Alien, Blade Runner) and even romantic comedy (A Good Year), Tony has stuck with high-octane popcorn pictures. Over the years, he has relied heavily on saturated images, flashy camera tricks, and frenzied editing over solid storytelling. Here, Tony Scott takes a step back and allows the audience to focus solely on the story.
Any other credit goes to the lead actors who carry the movie on their hefty shoulders. Chris Pine brings some of that Captain Kirk bravado with him and he needs all of it to prevent being swallowed whole by Mr. Denzel Washington. Seriously, Denzel is simply Denzel. He has such a tremendous on-screen presence that he transcends whatever character he is playing. Barnes and Coulson have your standard buddy relationship. The former is the hard-nosed lifer and the latter is the brash rookie. There’s not much more to it than that, but Washington and Pine absolutely make it work. Screenwriter Mark Bomback gives each man a perfunctory backstory. Coulson struggles with marital troubles while Barnes is a widower raising two young daughters who work at Hooters. Of course, we get shots of them in their orange shorts and tight tank tops to keep the film from turning into a complete sausage fest. They are definitely a welcome sight from all the shots of pulsating trains thrusting about and decimating anything within their path.
Speaking of which, the only female role of note is Rosario Dawson as Connie Hooper, the company’s yardmaster. Much like Washington in The Taking of Pelham 123, she’s in charge of coordinating the trains and directing traffic. I doubt there are many yardmasters who look like Rosario Dawson, but who’s going to complain? Dawson does her best with an underwritten part that mostly calls for her to spout explanatory dialogue like, “…we’re talking about a missile the size of the Chrysler Building.”
Unstoppable serves as something of a love letter to the working class man. Scott and Bomback touch upon the current economic state and how it has affected those who have served as the backbone of the nation. It’s not surprising that the film is set in Pennsylvania, home of the founding fathers along with the steel industry and Pennsylvania Railroad, once one of the largest companies in the world. How apropos that the main antagonist is Kevin Dunn as a railroad executive who is worried more about stockholders and the bottom line than with people’s lives.
However, don’t mistake Unstoppable for anything resembling a thinking man’s film. It’s a cinematic adrenaline rush for the action junkie.