by Roxana Hadadi
You can’t go into a Tony Scott film expecting to see anything more than an action-filled romp. As the director of films like “True Romance,” “Man on Fire” and the spectacular “Spy Game,” Scott revels in explosions and insane stunts, with little dialogue to murk up the gritty atmosphere. And with “Unstoppable,” his latest example of this formula, Scott shows exactly why that kind of minimal-on-talking, heavy-on-blowing-stuff-up ideology works so well.
It’s simple, really: A movie about a train. That can’t stop. That’s carrying explosives – through towns with people in them! The idea is so streamlined it’s laughable, but Scott keeps the energy taut, the suspense omnipresent and the thrills continual, benefiting both from his own slick directing style and star Denzel Washington’s easy acting. Some actors, people like Tom Cruise and Lindsay Lohan, become so famous for their personal weirdness that they transform into caricatures of themselves, no longer believable in any capacity onscreen. But Washington, with all his determination and gusto, remains the same, a dependable everyman committed to making the world a better place. In “Unstoppable,” he fits right in.
Before Washington can take center stage saving the day, though, a few things have to go wrong to make the train in “Unstoppable,” well, you know. First there’s Dewey (Ethan Suplee), a lazy train yard worker who can’t be bothered to switch the track before he gets on the train he’s moving, so he puts it in idle and gets out – and then can’t catch up to the train, No. 777, when it shifts into gear and starts barreling past him on the main line, a track that cuts through town after town. Renegade train!
Then there’s a useless corporate type, Oscar Galvin (Kevin Dunn), a guy who works for the train company and thinks only of how much money the company would lose if the 39-car locomotive – which has a few cars full of molten phenol, a toxic chemical – derailed. With figures like $100 million floating around, Galvin refuses to derail the train at first, instead thinking of various harebrained schemes to slow it down and stop it – who cares about the people who may get hurt, right?
So with all this indifference, it’s up to a couple of average Joes to make everything right again. Enter engineer Frank Barnes, who has worked for the train company for 28 years, and conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine), fresh out of school only four months ago; the two are paired up for a day of training on the rails on train 1206 when the situation begins. At first, they have no idea what’s going on, so it’s business as usual: Frank, who learned Will got his job through the union because of his family’s connections, judges the guy when he catches him using his cell phone and making mistakes. And Will, ready to make his own place in the world, gets easily frustrated with Frank’s griping. Fast friends they are not.
But everyone has to come together when there’s craziness happening, so when Frank decides to go after No. 777 and try to stop it, Will really has no choice but to agree – and with the help of yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), who can give them information about No. 777’s speed and whereabouts, they get to it. Much of the film depends on the three working together to avert disaster, and it’s all strangely believable, from Connie’s panicked updates on No. 777 to Frank’s calm phone call to his daughters to tell them he loves them. Dawson, Washington and Pine know how to keep the film’s energy up, and though there’s little dialogue that’s of any emotional relevance, there doesn’t really need to be. Who wants to chat about the weather when there’s a runaway train that may kill us all?
Scott’s directing style, with its fast cuts and extreme close-ups in people’s faces, keeps the thriller’s momentum, and his choice of supporting characters – like Lew Temple as Ned Olham, a welder with a ponytail, leather jacket and all-denim ensemble who Connie orders to chase the train in his humongous red pickup truck – add in some humor, too. You can’t look at Ned, super-serious with his aviator glasses and adventure-seeking ways, without giggling just a bit. But at the end of the day, it’s Washington’s show: His ease in leadership roles is what we’ve come to expect from the actor, and coupled with the character’s growing appreciation for Will’s domestic troubles and selflessness, he and Pine make a solid pair.
So of course the film is silly, with its explosions, rescue tactics and threat of overwhelming doom. But Scott’s ease at the helm and Washington’s comfort in his role keeps “Unstoppable” simultaneously suspenseful and light, appropriate for teens who can handle a bit of blood, fire, some cursing and a couple of brief scenes in Hooters – and for anyone else looking for an enjoyably goofy thrill.