Nothing can stop the unstoppable freight train that is Tony Scott’s movie-making machine. Since 1990 he has been making an average of one film every couple of years, and – with the exception of 2004’s somewhat unfairly maligned Domino – they’ve all made roughly twice as much as their budget back at the Box Office. The Studios throw him $75 Million, he’ll make them $150 in return. Regular as clockwork. So why would they stop? As long as he’s making them money, they don’t care what films he churns out.
Now the trouble with this ‘routine’ is that his movies – whilst consistently entertaining – are getting slowly but surely worse. It’s not that they are bad films – far from it – it’s just that they are becoming distinctly average, Saturday night flicks. Less and less memorable. Think back to 10 years ago and Scott was directing Robert Redford and Brad Pitt in the underrated thinking-man’s thriller Spy Game. It was only 2004 when he did an adaptation of Man on Fire, a powerful, brutal and stylish revenge thriller driven by a great performance by Denzel Washington (it’s only a shame they didn’t make that one into a franchise – there were at least 3 weighty books in the series). Then things started to go downhill. After the over-stylish (even by Scott’s hyperkinetic MTV standards) Domino tanked at the Box Office, Scott started releasing more reliably formulaic thrillers – Deja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and, now, Unstoppable.
A big problem with this whole situation is that it appears that he is taking Denzel Washington down with him. Washington was the man robbed for the Oscar for Malcolm X (Don’t even get me started on Spike Lee), who would later go on to finally win it for a performance in Training Day that was the epitome of powerhouse. And I’ve always been a big apologist for his run of movies with Tony Scott because the two clearly have a history: like DeNiro or DiCaprio to Director Martin Scorsese, Washington has worked with Scott on some five movies now – and the first couple were outstanding – the aforementioned Man on Fire and the battle of wills that was Crimson Tide. But Deja Vu was really pretty average. Watchable, but forgettable. Entertaining, but only for the duration. 2009’s Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 was arguably a step up, but was inherently at a disadvantage because it was another one of Hollywood’s unnecessary remakes. Still, it wasn’t totally throwaway – Travolta was pretty memorably over-the-top at least. Unstoppable, though, is the nail in their working coffin. It’s a by-the-numbers, strictly routine thriller – with a potentially thrilling premise which just doesn’t quite get developed into anything beyond mild entertainment.
The story is simple: through a series of unfortunate, unlikely and unlucky events, a massive freight train is unleashed – at full throttle – on a main line, without anybody on board to control it. Worse still, it’s packed with toxic material, which will devastate the surrounding area should the train derail. Heading for the more heavily populated town of Stanton, a two-manned locomotive is coming in the opposite direction, with too many cars attached to it to be able to detour onto the nearest siding. Despite being under the control of newly-assigned train conductor Will Colson, thankfully Frank Barnes is also on board, a veteran engineer who knows exactly what to do. And despite the protests of his superiors – and of Colson – he knows that he has to get on board that runaway and stop it himself.
So, right at the start, we get a blurb that states that this story was inspired by true events. I had my doubts – this is, after all, a Tony Scott film – but a little research and you will find out that almost the entire narrative is true to real life: down to exactly how the train got away unmanned, and even the various attempts to stop it that didn’t work. And when you watch the movie, you’ll realise that this is actually Scott’s most restrained work, but unfortunately this leaves the movie remarkably mundane. Seriously, for UK fans, this is just a standard Channel 5 straight-to-TV disaster movie, based on real events. It may have a reasonably big budget, and Scott’s directorial stamp all over it – right from the outset we get flash cuts, jarring, frenetic camerawork and rampant slow-mo/speed-up to remind you just whose film this is; but, for me, all that means is that this is a stylish Channel 5 movie.
Firstly, it takes far too long to get started, following the characters around in order for us to get to know them, when the unnecessary background sequences do little to inject life into characters that are already wafer-thin anyway. Beyond that, the train getting away in the first place was as a result of sheer stupidity, and that makes for a better satire than a serious drama. What, you didn’t connect the air brakes, forgot to leave the damn thing in ‘neutral’ and got off it as well? What did you expect would happen? Secondly, there are long drawn out segments where absolutely nothing happens other than a train – running at about 50-60 miles per hour – runs across the country. Sure, Scott makes the train growl like a wild cat as it roars its way across the landscape. He even has some schoolgirl waiting at a crossing, only to be scared witless by this huge beast blasting past (couldn’t she see and hear it coming from several miles away?). But little of what happens actually stands up to any kind of examination. Seriously, think about several of the things that happen in the movie, and ask yourself why they happened that way? Even the end resolution was ridiculous – surely that would have been the first choice on what to do in this situation?
I know that the movie was based on a true story, and true stories are often relatively uneventful (in reality, there were no accidents before the train was brought under control), but I really thought Scott would at least be able to make that story more interesting – hell, more explosive even. In fact, very little blows up in this movie, the train only crashes through a couple of things and the only sequence even approaching suspenseful entertainment comes remarkably late in the day. Whilst I wasn’t expecting this movie to be Runaway Train (a mid-eighties thriller that succeeded in character development, thrills and atmosphere), I was expecting some kind of suspense-driven spectacle.
Denzel Washington is on autopilot for the majority of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I love Washington, and I think he’s capable of great things, but for the last few years he’s been playing the same record. Whether it was Deja Vu, Taking of Pelham or now this, it’s the same damn character, time and again. Reliable family man, maybe a little tragedy in the background, underappreciated at work – despite being excellent at what he does and having more experience than everybody else. He doesn’t get really angry, never resorts to violence unless as the absolute last resort, and will perform feats of amazing heroism whenever called upon to do so. He’s like Superman, only without any powers. Total boy scout. It’s the kind of role that Harrison Ford – and many other actors – made their names on. But Washington is capable of so much more than just ‘solid’ work.
Chris Pine? Well he’s actually ok considering all he’s really famous for is playing the guy who embodies a Shatner-esque Kirk in the Star Trek reboot. I liked him in that, he was just one of the things that really worked about that movie. And here he doesn’t exactly have much of a character to portray (the backstory is both silly and clichéd) but still gets a few nice moments, and a couple of stunts to perform towards the end. Sin City’s Rosario Dawson tries her best with material that leaves her talking over a radio for the entire movie, and Kevin Dunn is the company suit in charge of overseeing the entire disaster – you know, the character in the movie who bosses everybody about, makes all the wrong decisions and has a team of lawyers and accountants flanking him at all times. He’s the guy who messes everything up and leaves the protagonist with no option other than to defy his orders and go renegade in order to get the job done. (The hit TV show 24 had about a dozen of these characters).
But you don’t watch this movie for character development, story or script (even Washington has some terrible dialogue – “This ain’t training. In training they give you an F. Out here you get killed.” Really? Unless the character had read the script, there was no way any reasonable train conductor could predict a fatal outcome for accidently tethering an extra couple of carriages to a locomotive). The movie is about an out of control train, so the big kid in every one of us just wants to see it hit stuff. And, honestly, the posters show everything thrilling that happens in this movie – all within the last half hour. Getting there is a slow ride. Scott’s visuals attempt to paper over the cracks, but often only go to highlight how shallow this affair is. As stated, he’s a solid director, who has crafted an efficiently working vehicle here, with perfunctory action sequences, but he appears to have forgotten everything about having true issues or impact. Back in the day – ten years ago – his movies were still about style AND substance. Sure, they may have been visually insane, but they had the characters and involvement to back that up. Nowadays, he just churns out $100 Million mindless blockbusters. And that’s a lot of money to spend on a movie with no heart. Honestly, I wouldnt’ be surprised if Hot Fuzz’s Simon Pegg and Nick Frost did a satire on Tony Scott’s over-stylised thrillers. But considering both Man on Fire and Spy Game are amidst my top movies of all time, that irrationally hopeful part of me expects both Scott and Washington to return to their glory days – whether together, or separately. But honestly, if Studios keep throwing money at them, and audiences keep going to see their movies, there’s no reason why they would think to change the formula. Solid, reasonably entertaining, but considerably flawed and, ultimately, quite disappointingly average.