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By Jim Rohner · November 15, 2010
Last night before I walked into the theater, I sent this text to a friend of mine: “I’m about to see Unstoppable. A movie about a train.” Really, without having any exposure to the film outside of watching the trailers, would you have blamed me? I was fully aware that Tony Scott had directed True Romance and Man on Fire – two titles I sincerely love – but seriously, this was a movie about a train, which with the removal of a track, sees its usefulness drop to the level of an ugly Megan Fox. I was also fully aware of that Denzel Washington’s resume is, if we’re being modest, admirable and that Chris Pine showed in Star Trek that he seems to be on the same path. But seriously, this was a movie about a train. How could that be interesting?
And for most of Act I, the answer was “not very.” We learn that Frank (Denzel), the 28-year veteran engineer of the railroad, has a tenuous relationship with his teenage daughters and is reasonably skeptical of Will (Pine), the young union conductor who seemed to have gotten his job more due to his family connections than anything else. We also learn that Will has a tenuous relationship with his wife and is sick of the “let’s break in the new guy” mentality that the old-timers have adapted. Of course, they end up on the same train doing something for somebody where Will eventually messes something up that will unknowingly effect future events and Frank has to impart fatherly wisdom and chastise him for being a rapscallion.
At one point a railroad employee has to blah blah blah and the train on which he blah blah blahs becomes an unmanned runaway, tearing through Pennsylvania at 70 mph with a cargo of toxic material. The details of how and why we get to that point matters very little; what matters is that when we get there the fun of Unstoppable REALLY begins and the answer to “how could that be interesting” changes from “not very” to “I’m Tony Scott – how dare you doubt me, you tall, lanky bastard.”
Like the half-mile runaway train – dubbed the 777 – Unstoppable starts a bit slow but eventually gains momentum and tension until an honest to God edge of your seat Act III. The beginning of the film gets bogged down a bit in train jargon – yes, it exists – but immense credit should be given to Tony Scott as the director because in many ways it really doesn’t matter whether you pick up on that jargon or not. Were the audio track muted, the shot selection and the editing of Robert Duffy and Tony Scott regular Chris Lebenzon would be more than enough to convey the risk, the stakes the hopes, the fears. By the time Will and Frank were racing in their lone engine to chase down the 777 in Act III, even the obnoxious teenagers (are there any other kind?) who had spent the first 2/3 of the movie climbing all over the seats had shut up and had their eyes glued to the screen. I can think of no better compliment for a filmmaker than that, if even for a half an hour, his product pacified a group of ADD-afflicted societal plights that think everyone in the theater paid $12 to listen to their shit.
Anchoring that sense of engagement is the pairing of Denzel Washington and Chris Pine who show great chemistry together thanks to their respective charismas. While Denzel’s Oscar-caliber days may be behind, only a cynic could look at his roles of the past 10 years and find something legitimately bad and he proves once again why he’s still one of the most bankable actors out there. On the flip side of that coin, Pine has another admirable leading role under his belt and gives us all reason to look forward to his next 10 years. Together, they exude humor, emotion, confidence and just enough fear to really make us care about them and worry that their jobs, if not lives, may very well be on the line.
And while those two are superb, I could entertain arguments of Unstoppable being considered an ensemble piece due to solid performances from a supporting cast including Rosario Dawson, Kevin Dunn, Lew temple and Kevin Corrigan, all of whom share just as much screen time and bring just as much intensity. By the end of the film, it’s resoundingly clear that Unstoppable is much more than just a movie about a train. Scott and co. have instead crafted a taut film about crisis and the responses – both negative and positive – that arise out of such moments.
And yet somewhere floating around out there, wherever it is that text messages go after leaving my phone, is a message of skepticism I’d like to retract. I thought Unstoppable was just a movie about a train, but that’d be like calling Speed just a movie about a bus or Casino just a movie about a casino. Don’t make the same mistake as I did and write this film off so easily. You’ll be missing out on something pleasantly surprising. After all, I would feel a bit cheated if Tony Scott had sent his friend a text saying, “tonight some tall, lanky bastard is seeing my film.”