Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Frank (Denzel Washington) is the old railway man who’s just been served his walking papers. As irony would have it, they come to him the same day that he is partnered up with some new kid Will (Chris Pine) who got the job, not because of his proven skill but because he is young, willing to take the pay and is related to the man who signs the cheques.
Will will be the conductor as the duo make their transport across Pennsylvania; those idyllic PA Mountains providing much of the film’s naturalistic backdrop. Meanwhile, at another yard, a train is sent off on it’s own after two morons, lazily break code in order to make their lives a little easier as one decides to jump out of his moving train to hit a railroad switch and sees the train drive off without him. Everything should be fine in theory, for the automatic brake should kick in, but of course, genius didn’t set the brake properly and the empty train barrels down the tracks at high speeds towards Stanton, and possibly the biggest disaster in PA history.
The advice of the station master (Rosario Dawson, providing so much presence from so little character) is to derail the train which, to add insult to injury, just so happens to be carrying highly toxic and explosive chemicals. There is a large patch of open country before the train hits endless civilization in which to derail the beast but the brass don’t quite take to the idea of wrecking millions of dollars of equipment. Their plan instead is to have a senior railroad man come up from the front and slam on the breaks while a marine is brought in by helicopter to drop down, climb inside and hit the breaks. It doesn’t work out much like that.
So the train barrels on towards catastrophe, destroying everything that is intentionally and unintentionally put in it’s path until Frank, with nothing to lose, decides that he and Will will chase the runaway backwards, catch it, hook it on to their breaks and save the day.
All of this is done with shameless glee by director Tony Scott, who, as with his past indulgences into excess, throws every trick in the book into the mix and then throws in the whole book as well. His camera spins and twirls and goes under the train and over the train and flies around the train with what seem like 100s of cuts per second. And yet unlike films like Man on Fire or Domino, here Scott feels like he has found a home for his aesthetic eccentricities. As the train barrels forward and his heroes barrel backwards after it, Scott manages to create real, clutching the hand-rails kind of white knuckle suspense. There is real danger here. Lives could be lost with one false move. Scott, by keeping thing hectic, never lets up on bringing that unnerving reality home.
Maybe that's because Will and Frank look like real heroes who are chasing a real train that is really out of control. If there are computer assisted effects at work here they are none that can be easily spotted by the naked eye. Thus all of the action feels plausible and for an hour and a half Tony Scott lets us know exactly what it might feel like to be in the midst of sudden death at top speeds. It’s an exhilarating ride. The film doesn’t pack the procedural punch of Paul Greengrass’ United 93 or The Bourne Ultimatum but he still manages to laugh in the face of big, dumb, artificial action movies and gives these kids a taste of how it’s really done.
Unstoppable doesn’t reinvent any wheels, doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done before even, but it does it so well that it hardly even seems to matter proving that, sometimes it’s not about breaking the trails, but knowing the old ones better than anyone else.