1,000,000 Tons. 100,000 Lives. 100 Minutes.
Based on true-life events, Tony Scott's latest high-concept production, Unstoppable, reunites the director with his favourite leading-man, Denzel Washington, someone who has most definitely discovered the Fountain Of Youth. After their blazing team-ups on Crimson Tide, Man On Fire, Deja-Vu and The Taking Of Pelham 123, the pair now find themselves at the break-pedal of this strong, streamlined and pulse-pounding action-thriller, the story of a runaway train, a quarter of a mile long, that is gaining speed and heading with almost supernatural vigour into areas of high population, shrugging off all attempts to stop it, and dragging behind it such an explosive cocktail of chemicals that any impact with them could possibly remove Pennsylvania from the map altogether.
The history of rogue cinematic trains has many carriages, of course. There's the pumping prison-break thriller of Runaway Train (1985), the comical stunt-fest of Silver Streak (1976), the daftly tacked-on climax of Speed (1994) and the gung-ho melodramatics of The Cassandra Crossing (1976), not to mention the bloody-eyed terror of Horror Express (1972). The image of a metal-muscled titan bearing down the tracks with piston-gunning fury has loomed large since the silent days of damsels tied to the tracks by moustache-twirling scoundrels, and passed through the excesses of Loony Toons and Wiley Coyote and a great number of Westerns. Tony Scott found his inspiration for Unstoppable from an altogether more realistic source. No, not Thomas The Tank Engine, but the driver-less trip that a 47-car Ohio-based loco made across three unsuspecting states before finally being stopped. Naturally, he's added all manner of danger into the mix, not least the suspected final stop that authorities fear Engine 777 (at least it wasn't 666, although the inference is clear) is going to make – nosediving from a bridge into a vast fuel depot.
When attempts to derail the roaring land-missile fail, the salvation-job falls to two reluctant partners chugging peacefully along the tracks, who believe that if they can catch up with the train and latch onto it, then they can slow it down before things go KA-BOOM! Veteran driver Frank Barnes (Washington) and greenhorn conductor Will Colson (Pine) – the pair having only hitched-up together that morning and having to deal with one another's opposing viewpoints whilst being forced to work as a cohesive unit if they are going to stand a chance of taming the wild beast that is now burning down the tracks as though a Satanic Casey Jones is in control, a rail-yard error of judgement having unleashed it. There's nothing new to either of these two grease-monkeys, and their dialogue is hardly all that revelatory either. But the joy of these two unwitting national heroes is in their very ordinariness. Most action movies of this style go too far in their depictions of the “normal working man”. I love Stallone, as I'm sure regular readers know all too well, but as rock-jock, cop or Manhattan Emergency Chief (see Daylight), his larger-than-life status just cannot be denied. And this goes for a great many other stars who are bustled into the appropriate fatigues, Mister Ben-style, for each new noble warrior part they are meant to bring to life. But these two aren't masking impressive musculatures beneath their rail company overalls, and nor are they struggling to get away from a highly decorated past that ended in a public disgrace after some unavoidable accident that has left them emotionally scarred for life. Both actors perfectly embody the ideals of men trying to make ends meet in a period of dark and ominous recession. You also get the clear impression that even if they should be fortunate enough to “run this bitch down” and still be able to walk away from it, they are just going to have a few beers and then get straight back to work the next day.
The runaway train probably has more chance of an Oscar nomination, but both Washington and Pine get the job done with the authentically dampened aspirations of men who unquestionably know their place in the grand scheme of things.
Shot almost in real-time, Scott's adrenaline-fuelled cross-country trip, delivers some serious thrills and spills, yet this is not quite the action-fest that its trailer would suggest. Sure we get to see people scampering about atop a speeding train, or hanging perilously between carriages. There's also some hair-raising helicopter action and an obstacle or two getting pulverised by the mean-spirited engine. But Unstoppable is blissfully free of terrorists, serial-killers, bank-robbers, rogue special forces units or aliens. In fact, Mark Bomback's screenplay is incredibly low-key and unsensational for a story that pits two determined men against a unyielding and pitiless leviathan … and this is what makes it something a little more refreshing than the usual breakneck, ten-a-penny blockbusters that amaze the viewer with pummelling special effects, yet completely alienate them with their utterly bland lack of humanity or foundation in the everyday, run-of-the-mill world that we can all relate to. There's nothing risibly ridiculous asked of anyone in this film and no-one has abilities – whether honed from a previous career that still haunts them, or bestowed by a radioactive spider – that stretches their character into unbelievable realms of derring-do. When failures and setbacks assail our grimly resilient champions, they get angry all right, but they also think of something else pretty quickly or just belligerently refuse to give in. And the great thing about them is that they don't do anything that ever breaks that bubble of credibility, or conforms to that horrible cliché of having changed them for the better as human beings once the dust has settled. Our heroes start off as flawed, but basically very good and likeable. And this is how they conduct themselves throughout the ordeal and, crucially, just how they will come out of it all on the other side.
Thus, if you are expecting that typical development arc of overcoming massive personal traumas – and, in fact, there are a couple of those, as well – with the regulation tying-up of loose-ends and that saccharine-drenched finale of yore, you may be pleasantly surprised at the film's far more gritty approach to the accepted template. I will concede that the screenplay demands this element of contrivance, but the difference is that Scott doesn't labour the point.
Washington, of course, has some experience with trains, having been the traffic co-ordinator thrust out from behind his desk and monitor screen to thwart John Travolta's villainous hijacker in the remake of The Taking Of Pelham 123, but this is a considerably more realistic portrayal of a veteran employee suddenly compelled to fight for a higher purpose. He also has a nice swings 'n' roundabouts approach to his sparring with Pine's newbie. One minute he is playing the old school pragmatist, semi-resentful of a young upstart who is fresh out training, the next he is swapping track-side tales with him. Such exchanges are not staggeringly original, but nor are they as eye-rollingly obvious as they could have been with another two performers.
I rate Chris Pine very highly. Not only was he a fantastic and utterly charismatic Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek reboot, but he has brought originality and true personality to his roles in Smokin' Aces, Bottle Shock and Carriers, in which he is unquestionably the best thing. Although clearly rugged enough for such heroic and strenuous roles, he has a finely rendered underdog persona that already has you warming to him before his character has even done anything of note. Will Colson is hardly a stretch for the actor, but Pine's ability to keep the character reined-in and actually quite accommodating and not as “flash-fire” as a million other genre hotheads is endearing. The guy does come with some emotional baggage, but it is not quite of the typical variety (in fact it involves a beautiful element of pure “D'oh!” that is quite unusual), and even if he is rebounding from a fractured relationship that will surely be on-the-mend if he manages to get out of this situation in one piece, the inevitable whimsy and schmaltz that you would expect is neatly evaded.
Rosario Dawson gets saddled with the “behind-the-scenes” role as the area line controller, Connie Hooper (a very far cry from the Fat Controller) stressing-out how to sideline and divert any engines that could find themselves in the runaway's path, liaise with Frank and Will, calculate solutions and fend off the irascible, penny-pinching rail chief, Oscar Galvin (Kevin Dunne) who seems hell-bent on canning anyone who doesn't follow his orders to the letter. An industry statistician, played by Kevin Corrigan, just happens to be on-site during the crisis as well, and much of the film is bounced around between these backseat-drivers as they argue amongst themselves. Now, this sort of thing always runs the risk of becoming pretty stale and tension-diluting, but each character is given enough material to create some verbal sparks, and, without their necessary exposition to keep relaying to our heroes, and to us, essential times, locations, distances and speeds, the overall threat would remain unfixed and rather undetermined. Equations pile-up fast, but the one calculation that we need to be concerned about is that Big Train + Volatile Chemicals + High, Curved Incline = Big Trouble For Pennsylvanian Factory and Surrounding City. Once we have grasped the deadly seriousness of what is going to happen if and when 777 comes flying off the tracks, we cannot help but be bolted to the scenario as nerve-wracked as all of the bystanders watching, mouths agog, at the metal monster hurtles past their towns and villages, or all of those glued to the endless on-the-spot news coverage that Scott fills his movie with. These unfolding bulletins could have been quite annoying – let's face it, news reporting in films is rarely convincing, anyone remember Spider-Man 3? - and these snippets may eat up a surprising amount of the running time, but they look and sound genuine and, doing the unthinkable, even add to the suspense.
Equally as good are the idiots that caused the whole thing in the first place, who are forced to go from flippant, mickey-taking tomfoolery to white-knuckled, conscience-rattled ghosts praying in the background as the situation spirals out of control and gets steadily worse and worse from then on. But it is Company speed-freak, Ned (Lew Taylor), who is doggedly chasing down the train and leading a veritable convoy of police cars in his wake who threatens to steal the show … if he could just catch up in time! It should also be commented on that the main characters make no issue at all of the airborne armada of helicopters that swoop constantly over their heads as they embark on their do-or-die mission. In Britain – if the trains were running in the first place – our home-grown rail-track cavaliers would be mugging shamelessly for the cameras and waving at the rotor-bladed entourage for Hello! Magazine. Frank and Will are immune to the media saturation that zips all around them, hoping to capture their success, or their grisly failure for all the word to see.
Scott imbues his runaway locomotive with the presence of a demon, some monstrous snake of iron and steel ploughing relentlessly forwards on a journey to oblivion, annihilating anything in its path. With speeded-up film, track-level photography that has the beast thundering over our heads and all manner of other angles that promote the thing as a living, sentient and vengeful entity, Unstoppable comes over less as Jaws, as some people have commented, and more as Duel – the fact that both of these gripping thrillers hail from the same modern master, Spielberg, cannot be overlooked. And Scott adheres to the principle of everyday working-Joes thrust into a situation that demands they dig deep, enforce their practical skills in the face of calamity and trust to their instincts when no-one else will listen. DOP Ben Seresin keeps that kinetic feeling on-the-boil with constantly roving shots that encircle the two leads as they bicker and scheme in the cabin. Snap-taut editing from from Chris Lebenzon and Robert Duffy run in-cahoots with hand-held camerawork and set-pieces that never outstay their welcome or come over as massively over-elaborate. Things happen on-the-hoof and when 777 barrels out of another trap … that's it. He's gone. So the film is episodic, but Scott manages to capture each of these little vignettes in such a way that we know they are all part of an ongoing drama, and in this manner, we rarely get a chance to draw breath with a steady, driving momentum.
It is amazing how the film's two big stunts would be background filler in many other action extravaganzas, yet literally have you on the edge of your seat. This is because Frank and Will are real-life (ish) characters, with real problems and attitudes, and unencumbered with elaborate contrivances, super-powers or innocent loved-ones at stake. They basically have nothing to lose by going after 777, although, at a stretch, you could argue that Frank is sort of striving to win back some respect, trying to prove that his apparently dying-breed of train driver still has what it takes in this cut-throat modern world of cost-cutting and fat cat bonuses. It is this fact that gives the film a potent political edge, especially in this current climate of insensitive and insane job cuts and corporate greed at the top of the scale. Bomback's screenplay doesn't undersell this point, either, and I didn't find this development at all sermonising, just fittingly finger-pointing.
An acrobatic chopper pursuit supplies the film's central set-piece and it is pertinent to note that our boys aren't even involved in it. But no-one who has seen Deep Blue Sea, The Relic or The Perfect Storm can be under any illusion that hauling-in some military specialist and dangling him on the end of a rope is going to result in anything other than disaster. America's faith in its valiant emergency personnel is shaky at best, if genre films can be taken as a cultural gauge. But this is a terrific sequence of heart-in-mouth excitement, at any rate. An early moment of equestrian jeopardy will surely induce palpitations, as will the plight of a trainload of schoolchildren who, ironically enough, are about to learn about rail safety. I know that these two examples of innocent victims being caught up, Casualty-style, in the ensuing mayhem induced a few weary groans from the audience at the flicks where I saw the film. Indeed, it seemed as though we were in line for an assembly of all the other disaster-movie staples – from dog-walkers to pregnant women giving birth in cars stranded at cross-roads to the inevitable child's doll lying shredded on the tracks (none of which happens, I should add) – but Scott actually jettisons such corny elements in the first act to then concentrate upon the chase.
Harry Gregson-Williams supplies a score that is appropriately pounding and remorseless, but it also lacks distinction or personality and becomes yet another unmemorable and generic modern action score. It is a shame, too, as the composer has proved to have quite a unique voice when he puts his mind to it. Perhaps, like the story, he found only a linear path of destruction to work with, which may have ultimately restricted his creativity somewhat. I'm actually surprised that the soundtrack was littered with Bruce Springsteen tracks.
Unstoppable is likely to prove to be anything but unstoppable at the box office, despite being solid, all-round entertainment. If the people that I saw it with are anything to go by, it doesn't have enough action, stunts or violence to provide the full brain-dead escapist excitement that many may demand. Yet, I still had a great time with it and would certainly not hesitate to see it again. Far from Scott's best and, indeed, this is probably quite a light offering from him, Unstoppable is certainly no train wreck and, in my opinion, provides a thrilling experience on the big screen.
I'd certainly recommend chasing down this rogue loco, and Unstoppable gets a track-rattling 7 out of 10 from me.
Tony Scott's latest comes on like a blitzkrieg, its singular, ultra streamlined narrative a welcome relief after so many bloated and unsatisfying cinematic adventures this year. A rousing momentum of noble pursuit and a sweaty-palmed finale ensure that Unstoppable should be a sure-fire crowd-pleaser even if, ultimately, it will prove to be a rather forgettable one. Washington and Pine are both great actors and they provide their erstwhile blue-collar heroes with enough energy and character to have genuinely invest in their well-being. I tend to find that Denzel can be quite cloying and even patronising with some roles, but his defiant engine-driver is, just like the film, remarkably pared-to-the-bone, and all the better for it.
The trailer is suggestive of mucho action but the truth is a little different. The real-time vibe is a winner, though, and the runaway train's demonic presence is wonderfully evoked. The allusions to Jaws aren't correct, however, as this machine is no sinuous and mostly unseen threat. Engine 777 is a constant entity that motors like a gravity-ensnared Exocet through swathes of gaping onlookers, and even when the leviathan isn't in our heroes' sight, it is caught barging across the landscape like a metal tsunami on the cameras of a host of fly-by reporters. References to Duel, or even The Car, are for more appropriate, I feel.
No murders, no shoot-outs and a fair few clichés handily derailed early on mean that Unstoppable can be quite a refreshing treat. All aboard the runaway train from hell, then!
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