In roughly two years, you won’t be able to surf channels past FX without noticing that they are, for the 13th time that month, replaying Unstoppable, director Tony Scott’s portrayal of a true story about an unmanned runaway train set loose near Scranton, Pennsylvania. Why FX? It’s produced by 20th Century Fox, sure, but with all the film’s scene transitions through the local FOX station’s news coverage (and a TV with “Animation Domination” staple “Family Guy” noticeably on in the background during the opening credits), the table is certainly set. Unlike some other routine servings from the channel, however, fitting Unstoppable in isn’t necessarily such a bad thing.
It’s another one of those movies in which the viewer knows mostly what he or she is going into – that is, so long as the viewer has seen the promos and, like I did, expects Speed with more calculated risks at suspending disbelief. I have not read or watched news clips of the actual mishap, nor do I really feel a need to with this medium yet still intense offering of action. When a movie “based on a true story” is not following someone who has remarkably changed the view or outcome of society’s future (as opposed to reporting one district’s calamity), then really, what’s the use of investigating? But maybe this is just how I feel with Unstoppable due to how its perilous incident ended…
The story begins in the early morning of what is to be a long, nerve-racking day with the characters obviously unaware of what is to come. Chris Pine (a year after playing Captain Kirk in Star Trek) plays blue-collar young gun Will, a guy constantly checking his cell phone about his recent separation from his wife while working his first day on the job as a union-employed conductor. Despite his training, the veteran engineers mutter their disapproval over Will’s lucky connections, noting his age as a clue to their own oncoming terminations. One of these veterans, Frank (Denzel Washington), a widower with two teenage daughters who serve at Hooters, is assigned to accompany Will on his first day on the tracks. Frank also clocks in this day with family grief, trying to untangle the mess of forgetting one daughter’s birthday.
On another side of the state are two lesser devoted employees, played with slack-jaw by Ethan Suplee and T.J. Miller (Hud the camera guy from Cloverfield). Thanks to some frustrating corner-cutting about the brakes and desires to juggle tasks that require devoted focus, these bristly slackers mistakenly let a half-mile-long, highly flammable freight train slip away with a lever that has jiggered to full speed (a key detail that is aggravatingly learned a little late) and no one on board. Once the duo fully come to light of the trouble, they immediately fess up to their boss Connie (Rosario Dawson) in the district’s control center, and as the news of the danger spreads, everyone joins together in several attempts to meet the ticking secondhand of mayhem at the pass. This includes obstacles like an elementary school’s field trip, a trailer full of horses, and whatever else the roaring steel beast could barrel through or tip over on.
A first plan, devised by an out-of-the-element executive/suit (an anger-spewing Kevin Dunn, who else?), to slow the train with a new engine up front while a soldier is to be lowered on by helicopter tragically fails. It is after Frank and Will avoid a close “game of chicken” with their own train that they find a chance to end this themselves and choose to be the heroes, dismissing employers’ orders to move along. They detach their own cargo and speed after the 70-mph danger in reverse with their front engine in order to provide brakes to the best of their ability. What follows for the rest of the film are reaction shots from all involved – professionally and personally – and a far less comical two-working-man rendition of car-hopping a la Buster Keaton in The General.
Even though Washington plays his usual headstrong drama ticks and Pine is cast with this generation’s female viewers’ swooning in mind, it’s very easy for anyone who takes his or her own job seriously to get caught up in the plot. I found myself literally shaking my head in disbelief over the incompetence of the characters held responsible and leaning forward with an urge to see, after one death occurring, if both Frank and Will make it out alive. Scott also deserves accolades for the dialog containing brief pauses while each person considers options and thinks on their feet while on the radio with one another, realistically portraying urgency to keep cool and maintain an optimistic atmosphere.
Unstoppable ends with quite possibly this viewer’s least favorite way to end a film possible: the “Where are they now?” title cards. They assure the audience that if Pennsylvania’s heavy cargo delivery industry ever makes a mistake so grandiose, then those who succeed at fixing it will be rewarded with promotions and turned-around lives, and those who turn out to fail get fired, by Job! It’s a cynical, black-and-white-minded decision that goes against the preceding scenes of well-wishing and good-spirited teamwork, coaxing us to ultimately either cheer or jeer each individual – haven’t the screw-ups suffered enough? Unstoppable undeniably has its flaws, but any action-lovers who found last year’s Scott/Washington also-train-based remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 daunting should feel replenished with this flick. Catch it if you can.
3.5 out of 5 stars.