Thank goodness director Tony Scott is stuck in a rut… twice-over. Not only is Unstoppable his second straight movie with Denzel Washington (and their fifth overall), it’s also their second straight ‘drama on a train’ movie, after last year’s The Taking of Pelham 123.
And it’s just as good, if not better.
Unstoppable is an all-out, white-knuckle thrill ride, expertly directed (and beautifully shot) and driven by a well-crafted screenplay.
The premise couldn’t be simpler—railroad rookie and veteran team up to try to stop a runaway train laden with explosive materials—and because it’s so simple, it’s that much more effective. The refreshing lack of boring subplots clears the tracks for a rock-solid, highly entertaining 100 minutes of mayhem.
Based on the real-life events that played out in Ohio in 2001, Unstoppable stars Washington as Frank, a 28-year veteran of the rail yard (this close to calling it a career) who’s teamed up with Will (Chris Pine), a rookie just four months out of railroad training school. What starts out as a rocky ‘old pro vs. newbie’ relationship quickly evolves into an honest and believable bit of teamwork.
The train in question begins barreling down the tracks in western Pennsylvania thanks to a bit of carelessness by the train yard buffoons (Ethan Suplee and T.J. Miller). On board are a half-dozen cars loaded with a highly flammable and highly toxic gas, which instantly turn the train into ‘a missile the size of the Chrysler Building’. In its path are a train full of local school kids learning about rail safety, a handful of cute little towns, and one heck of a bit of curvy elevated track that will toss the speeding train over like it’s made of legos, right into a city with a population near a half-million. Also in its path are Frank and Will, hauling forty cars of their own.
Back in the dispatch center, Connie (Rosario Dawson) is pulling out every stop she has to find a solution, all the while feeling the heat from the corporate fat cats, led by Galvin (Kevin Dunn). One-by-one, different attempts are made to stop the train, but they all fail (one with a very sobering result), leaving Frank and Will as the last resort.
Across the board, the actors deliver spot-on performances. Scott has truly found his muse in Washington, whose calm in the face of the storm is just what the doctor ordered, and Pine more than holds his own against one of Hollywood’s top stars.
Tony Scott brings his trademark high-saturation colors, grainy visuals, and frequent snap zooms to the party, but they’re never distracting. In fact, they only add to the feel, upping the tension along the way. The script by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) doesn’t waste any time with fluff; even the requisite back stories (Frank lost his wife to cancer, Will’s dealing with an estranged wife and child) are handled so well that the movie ends with you truly feeling like you know these characters inside and out.
Unstoppable will get little, if any, attention at the Academy Awards this year, but it really should—simply because it does everything that it sets out to do and it does it startlingly well. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, makes you gnaw on your fingernails, and then, when it’s all over, you’ll realize you’ve been holding your breath for the better part of a half-hour.
And you really can’t ask for much more than that.