Director Tony Scott goes off the rails for one wild ride
Tony Scott’s latest thriller isn’t Citizen Kane. But then, Citizen Kane didn’t have to deal with some unguided chemical missile roaring along a railway collision course with the end of the line poised over a yard stacked with fuel tanks in the middle of a Pennsylvania town. So, popcorn everywhere!
Does it matter that it’s based on a true story? No, not really. In real life, the train grumbled across Ohio at speeds between 10 and 50 mph until it was brought under control. Yawn. But in Scott’s hands, the throttle gets jacked back until it’s roaring along at 75 mph, with things occasionally getting in the way so that they can get exploded real good.
The action begins after some schmuck steps off the train to switch tracks and the thing rolls on without him, loaded with all sorts of toxic, flammable chemicals (’cause that’s the sort of thing that rolls through our back yards every day). The train takes it upon itself to slip into high gear and then so does Scott’s blue-collar white-knuckler.
Meanwhile, in another locomotive down the tracks, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine are a couple of rail-yard workers having a bad day. Washington’s daughters work at Hooters and he’s just been pink-slipped by the company, and Pine has a restraining order saying he needs to stay away from his wife and child. (Of course, the paperwork on Pine is over a misunderstanding, so that’s not an empathy deal-breaker.)
Anyway, their bad day is just about to get much worse as yard dispatcher Rosario Dawson gets on the horn and lets them know what the stakes are. After all other attempts at bringing the freight train back home fail, it’s up to our two working-class heroes to swing their locomotive around and roar after the rolling disaster-in-the-making and do what American can-do spirit does best—fix someone else’s cock-up.
There’s nothing complicated about Unstoppable. It’s a noisy, slam-bang thriller that is perfectly happy delivering what it promises without too many bells and whistles, and it does a great job of it. While over the course of his oeuvre Scott’s style (oversaturated, grainy film-stock, stutter cuts and all sorts of other visual noise) has tended to get in the way of his narrative, here it fits like a glove with the clacketing of a freight train roaring along the rails to Hell.
It helps that Washington and Dawson are two of the more likable actors working in film today, so one can buckle up with some comfortable company to the end of the line. It also helps that there’s a wry sense of humor interspersed through the proceedings. Scott may be on the side of the common man here, but he’s also having fun with some of the more absurd aspects of that beast’s thinking (such as knuckleheaded crowds lining up in the path of disaster with their cameras cocked, or a small-town posse of cops playing Sergeants York for the media). There’s never really any suspicion that the flick will end in a mushroom cloud, but Scott never lets up on the throttle long enough for that kind of thinking to take hold.