Denzel Washington and Chris Pine versus runaway train. That’s enough, isn’t it? How much more do you need?
The good guys aren’t cops, soldiers or superheroes, just working-class Americans (although cops and at least one Marine fresh from Afghanistan are among the supporting characters). There are no guns or bombs, no kidnapped heroine or taunting bad guy (although a supercilious, profit-minded executive in a distant office stands in for a villain) — just thousands of tons of iron, fuel and combustible toxic chemicals barreling like a rocket through industrial Pennsylvania. Obstacles include railroad crossings, hairpin turns and oncoming passenger trains.
None of the characters in Unstoppable is having a good day. Frank Barnes (Washington), a 28-year veteran engineer, has forgotten to call one of his daughters on her birthday, and now she isn’t talking to him. Will Colson (Star Trek’s Pine), a greenhorn conductor with political connections, gets grief from hostile blue-collar coworkers. Convention dictates that both protagonists have personal troubles that aren’t clear right away.
In another train yard, yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) has a growing headache on her hands. A disaffected yard worker — the sort of schmo who seems to resent his job as an imposition on his free time — has cut corners and made mistakes while relocating a train, and something has gone wrong. It’s the sort of thing that would usually amount to a close call, a near miss — but every once in a while near misses don’t miss.
At first Connie thinks she has only a “coaster” on her hands — an unmanned runaway train rolling along on inertia, easily dealt with. But then it emerges that the train is under power … and picking up speed. Is a federal safety inspector inconveniently on hand at this inopportune moment? Is Connie’s boss part of the problem rather than part of the solution? What do you think?
Meanwhile, an unsuspecting Colson makes rookie mistakes, chafing at his own inexperience and Barnes’s keen eye, while Barnes needles him for failing to ask for help. “In training, they give you an F,” Barnes harangues. “Out here in the real world, you get killed.” The veteran/rookie dynamic has been done to death, but Unstoppable adds social, political and economic factors to the mix. The movie is aware of the recession, and of the insecurity and resentment among older workers in a time of upheaval, with connected upstarts in the wings ready to take their places.
Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Déjà Vu), whose ADD-style directing has gotten increasingly erratic over the years, is comparatively restrained here, which isn’t saying much. Happily, the film embraces practical effects — real trains and real stunts rather than computer-aided fakery — though too many scenes lack context. It would be nice if Scott cared about establishing, say, how much parallel road there is alongside a train track for a racing vehicle that’s trying to put a person on the train. Whether or not there’s enough road ultimately depends on plot convenience.
At times Scott takes a break and allows Fox News to flesh out the developing crisis, bringing loved ones and random citizens into the story. Colson’s estranged wife and Barnes’s grown daughters watch on television and hold their breaths. (Barnes’s daughters are working through college by waitressing — at Hooters. It could have been worse.)
Washington’s effortless charisma and authority are slightly leavened by an unassuming blue-collar, middle-aged demeanor. As for Pine, there’s no hint of the brash audacity of his James Kirk; Colson is petulant and lacking self-confidence, yet still somehow sympathetic. Under the pressure of the crisis, the two slowly bond through approved manly rituals such as self-deprecating humor and mutual confession.
Their relationship is too one-sided. Barnes has the experience and the judgment, and is never wrong about anything; Colson always needs to be told what to do, even in his personal life. It’s not necessarily an implausible pairing, but it could have been more interesting. Colson eventually proves himself under fire, yet he’s hesitant and unsure right to the end, so that seconds before the climax another character has to call him an emasculating five-letter word that no one would ever think to call James Kirk.
There are obvious comparisons to Speed, as well as a host of train movies going all the way back to Buster Keaton’s silent masterpiece The General. But Speed benefited from Joss Whedon’s penchant for thinking outside the box, such as making Keanu’s cop a polite, professional team player rather than a wisecracking maverick. Unstoppable is devoid of such surprises, with one small exception: The safety inspector isn’t a jerk, and actually contributes some helpful information.
In spite of its limitations, the propulsive strength of the premise and the likability of the stars carry Unstoppable to the end of the line. There’s a reason the expression “like a freight train” is a cliché, and this film reminds us why.
P.S. A gratuitous opening title tells us that Unstoppable is “inspired by actual events.” In 2001 an unmanned train, CSX #8888, escaped from an Ohio train yard and raced along for over three hours, covering over 60 miles before being brought under control. On board were thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical, molten phenol. Some key strategies from the film, both successful and unsuccessful, reflect the real incident, although there were no collisions, explosions or injuries. William C. Vantuono, editor of RailwayAge.com, would like you to know that 99.9 percent of rail hazmat shipments arrive at their destination without incident.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.