– Summary –
Director : Tony Scott
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Kevin Dunn, Rosario Dawson, Lew Temple, TJ Miller, Ethan Suplee, Jessy Schram.
Approx Running Time : 90 Minutes
Synopsis: There’s a runaway train carrying explosive, toxic cargo, heading right to a major urban center. Two railyard employees must chase it down and stop it, before tragedy unfolds.
What we think : Bland, barely exciting action flick from Tony Scott, which struggles to un-bog itself from an excess of character development before delivering the large-scale runaway train stuff we’ve all paid to see. It struggles to gain momentum (weird, for a runaway train flick!) and seems like it’s all a bit hard for the two leads – Unstoppable is less an unstoppable film and more a why-should-we-stop-it film.
I make no secret of the fact that I haven’t really liked a lot of director Tony Scotts films in recent years – Man On Fire in particular – thanks mainly to Scotts penchant for rubbery-focus jump-cuts and digital focus shifts, in amongst the saturated color grades and overbaked tones he’s been using since his last truly great action flick, Enemy Of The State. I’ve hoped that one day, Scott would deliver a film that just forwent all the cinematic trickery and just told the story. Well, all my waiting has been rewarded with Unstoppable, perhaps Scotts most approachable and traditional films in the last decade. Gone are a majority of his signature styles – the weird focus changes and jump-cuts – for a steady, solid aesthetic of camerawork and editing styles. Unfortunately, Unstoppable has a number of issues which prevent it from being a truly great action flick, and I can’t blame Scotts weird visual style for this.
Unstoppable is “inspired by ” true events, which means somebody heard about something similar and just made stuff up to fill out a movie. Whether the characters are based on real people, or the actual events of the film are based on actual events, probably doesn’t matter. New train conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine) and veteran Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) are out on Will’s first day on the job, shunting trains and carriages around the Pennsylvania rail system. In another rail yard further up the line, two “hostlers” (guys paid to shift trains around in each rail yard) accidentally let a fully laden train get away from them, and under full power, it starts a long and dangerous journey towards Stanton, where an massive elevated curve in the track will bring the entire machine, including its explosive, highly toxic cargo, into contact with a large population. Yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) battles company bureaucracy in the form of Rail Company executive Oscar Galvin (Kevin Dunn) to ensure that the train is brought to a halt with minimum damage or incident – a fact which is made increasingly more difficult with Galvins interference. Will and Frank must not only get their own train off the main line and out of the way of the oncoming building-sized missile, but when it passes, decide to pursue it, in order to try and bring it to a halt. The race, as they say, is on.
Unstoppable is a film which struggles to define itself. On the one hand, the opening 20 minutes or so deliver a rushed, belabored series of character beats and origins, with a series of stock characters in place of anything new and fresh. Denzel plays the wizened, been-there-done-that railway grouch, recently retrenched and in the last few weeks of employment. He’s grumpy, prone to sarcasm and definitely not interested in taking a young, brash newcomer under his wing. That brash newcomer is played by Chris Pine, whom most audiences will recognize as the new Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboot from a few years ago. Pine’s character has a “name” for himself – he’s apparently the son or nephew of some famous family who seems to be on a comedown from a life of potential luxury, and as the opening of the film suggests, his family life ain’t going so smoothly either. Denzel, as Frank, also has family issues, with a somewhat strained relationship with his two teenage daughters. Frank sees Will as a job scab, and Will sees Frank as a bitter old man unwilling to share his knowledge and experience for the sake of making him look stupid.
On the other hand, Unstoppable offers a delectable plot device to keep its momentum moving. A runaway train filled with a deadly substance heading for a lot of people; the concept is as simple as “there’s a bomb on a bus”, although the end result here doesn’t quite match up to Speed’s frantic escapism. There’s the requisite clash of dominance between the Law and the Company, between the young rail controller played by Rosario Dawson and the boss of the company that owns the train, Kevin Dunn, and there’s the clash of personalities between the main stars, Denzel and Pine. The question one must ask is, why? Why do we need these personality conflicts when there’s a massive, “Chrysler Building”-length train building up speed and set to crash in a major city. This is the major issue I had with Unstoppable: there’s too much focus on the human conflict, the internal combatant factor, than there is on the train. The conflict between Frank and Will seems forced, as if they needed to be angry with each other to generate their bond by the end of the film, instead of an organic, carefully constructed character dynamic which draws the audience into their fragmented relationship. The script doesn’t deliver the warmth of either character – they’re both portrayed as a little arrogant, not exactly the best thing to engender them to us, the audience – and the scenes with them “bonding” feel hackneyed and cliched.
Rosario Dawson does a solid, if unremarkable, job as the one person overseeing the trains on the tracks – her job in the film is to provide the link between the guys in the trains, and the guys in the suits back at HQ who seem more worried about market share and reputation than they do about saving lives. Dawson has little to do except sit at a desk and scream into a microphone, and while her character could have been played by anybody, she does a good enough job to make me enjoy it. Kevin Dunn plays the unscrupulous company executive who sees only dollar losses, a role which is a far cry from his comedic portrayal in Transformers. I enjoy Dunns work, mostly, although his character here seems to be pretty one note – he’s the token Bad Guy because you can’t make the train the villain; it’s not the trains fault it’s on the loose. The cause of all this panic is Ethan Suplee’s railyard Hostler Dewey, as moronic a guy as there ever was one. His dereliction of duty at a critical moment, in which he leaves a train to throw a switch and then can’t run fast enough to get back on, is teeth-grindingly stupid, and Suplee’s performance here is excellent. Although, I think Suplee is typecast from his My Name Is Earl role, because both characters are morons. TJ Miller plays Deweys workmate Gilleece, a nothing role which serves only to highlight the consequences of Dewey’s actions through dialogue.
Denzel is solid as Frank, although the role ask almost nothing of him in terms of character: this film, for him, is a paycheck, and nothing more. He offers virtually nothing in the way of anything new in his performance, and is almost a reprisal of the character he played in his previous teaming with Tony Scott, The Taking Of Pelham 123. Personally, I think Denzel’s taking up the “wise old Yoda” character roles, in which he’s “too old for this shit”, way too early on in his career. Chris Pine puts as much effort into his role as the angry young Will, as he did in his portrayal of Captain Kirk. The script gives his character virtually nothing save lip-service on a backstory, and the entire arc of his character, and his relationship with his estranged wife, is, in the end, quite pointless. The reasons for his estrangement are perfunctory and stock, almost join-the-dots storytelling, and the emotional “I’m doing this for my kid and wife” stuff is terribly cliched.
Where the film succeeds, mostly, is in the action. Scott delivers a runaway train with genuine heft, a rock solid screen “villain” just waiting to mow down anything and anyone in its path. This train is unstoppable, and the measures of trying to prevent this train from causing a major disaster border on the genuinely insane. People leaping onto the train from helicopters, driving alongside it in vehicles, or latching onto it from behind with another locomotive; this beast is attacked on all sides. Scott handles the action with a surprising amount of restraint, it must be said. Restraint for him, I mean. His camera swings around the trains and cast with the energy of a Red Bull overdosed three year old. The camera is everywhere, and as a result, so are we. One moment we’re a news camera, the next we’re six inches from the front of a thousands tonnes of moving freight train, and the next we’re swinging through the cabin of another locomotive with grease and oil flying. Almost as if it’s defying convention, the energy of the camera can’t seem to translate into energy with the story, however. The direction and editing of the film still feel flat, almost perfunctory; there were perhaps only a few moments in the entire film where I was actually excited by what I was seeing. Tony Scott has given us all a straightforward action film, minus his trademark visual flair, and yet managed to craft a film devoid of the real energy it needs to make it tense and exciting.
With a cast unable to provide any genuine heart to their characters, and Scott’s inability to generate real, palpable tension with his loco-crazy antics, Unstoppable merely ambles along with the sluggish, not-quite-speedy visceral power the film demanded. The majority of the film feels interminably lengthy, as Frank and Will chase down the runaway locomotive; this seems to go on forever, all the while the constant reminders of the impending disaster play out on the TV news broadcasts and police evacuations of locals towns. Efforts to derail the train fail, as do efforts to land some Navy Seal dude on it as well: our heroes are the only genuine salt-of-the-earth dudes who can stop it. Yep, all this film needs is an American Flag waving somewhere prominent and you’d have the whole set of cliches. Unstoppable is solidly made, I’ll give it that, and I guess there’ll be plenty of folks who are taken in by its premise and execution, but all I could see were the flaws – and those flaws undermined what could have been a ripper film. If I’d made it, I would have pared back the unnecessary character development, amped up the destruction the runaway train caused (a few scenes of destruction exist in Unstoppable, but they’re too far and few between…), and made this a white-knuckle ride rather than a tepid character-driven piece. If I was to spoil the film at all, it would be to tell you that in the entire film, only one person actually dies. One. Not that a body-count should matter, but the lack of carnage or consequence limits just how much tension you can derive from a vehicle you know is going to follow a track.
Look, Unstoppable is a likeable action flick, although I tend to think it’s more likely going to be a Sunday afternoon rainy-day affair than a Saturday night blockbuster. The characters are cliched, the action seems generic (I’d never say that about the rest of Tony Scott’s films, whether I enjoyed them or not) and the tension I wanted to feel, never manifests in the quantity I needed to feel it. Unstoppable is enjoyable, but hardly memorable. Worth a rental, at least. Fans of Denzel may find more to appreciate, but aside from that, I was left unimpressed by it all.