Friday, November 12, 2010
Movie review: Unstoppable
Tony Scott and Denzel Washington sure do love their train movies.
Scorsese and DiCaprio. Burton and Depp. Some directors and actors were just made to work together. And while it may not be considered one of the most classic pairings in movie history, the duo of director Tony Scott and Denzel Washington is among the most prolific. Washington has starred in five of Scott's films, including his last three. Their latest is Unstoppable, which fits right in with the oeuvre that the two have carved out.
Scott specializes in high octane, in-your-face films, and what could be better for that type of filmmaking than a story about an out-of-control freight train? (Not to be confused with last year's Scott-Washington film about a train.) Washington plays Frank, a longtime employee of a Pennsylvania railroad company. On this fated day, he's paired with newbie Will (Chris Pine), who's trying to find himself after a string of bad luck, both professionally and personally. One of them is an engineer and one is a conductor, but all that matters is that part of their jobs involves moving trains from one place to another, a duty which puts them in the right place at the right time to deal with a train that's gotten away from its handlers.
The 98-minute film is not nearly as breathless as its title would lead you to believe, but it certainly keeps things moving at a nice clip. Scott employs his trademark camera techniques yet again, keeping the camera moving at almost all times. Schoolchildren, animals, and other innocent bystanders are all in peril at one point or another. Stanton, the hometown of both Frank and Will, is the place most likely to be in real danger, as the railroad tracks make a nearly 90 degree turn right in the middle of town, perfect conditions for a devastating derailment. And even in a film that wouldn't seem to have a natural villain other than the “missile as long as the Chrysler Building,” Scott and screenwriter Mark Bomback (Race to Witch Mountain) manage to make sure the audience knows who to root against by including Kevin Dunn as a callous railroad executive.
Even though the film is “inspired by real events” (a similar, if not as fantastic, event happened in Ohio in 2001), there are times when the ridiculousness factor threatens to overwhelm the drama. For instance, not only does the news coverage know the names of every key player involved in trying to stop the train, but they also have their pictures and details about their lives, as if the train company had nothing better to do than supply this information. In a weird way, however, this actually serves the film well, as it sets up several funny moments that keep the film light. The idea that Frank, Will, and others could make time to joke while under extreme stress is a nice touch, even if it's a tad unrealistic. The absurdity of some of the goings-on is also dampened by the fact that knowing exactly how trains work is kept just out of reach from the audience, which gives the filmmakers some latitude in how over-the-top they want to go.
Washington is the consummate pro of the cast, and he's able to sell every decision that Frank has to make. As it always is in Tony Scott films, he seems better than the material, but his presence elevates everything around him. That includes Pine, who does a decent if unmemorable job as Will. The erstwhile Captain Kirk is supposed to be in anguish over his personal life, but the pain his character is supposed to be experiencing is never truly convincing, although part of that could be the script. The only other well-known actor in the film is Rosario Dawson, who plays Connie, the person who oversees all operations for the train company. She holds her own and gets in a few good lines, which is about all you could expect from her role.
Scott and Washington have worked together so many times that they could do this kind of film in their sleep. Fortunately, they appear to have put some effort into making Unstoppable an entertaining venture. It's no blockbuster, but it's more than good enough for a late fall action movie entry. Just try not to think too hard.