This one could be a runaway smash
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, November 12, 2010
The director Tony Scott achieves something close to the action movie in its ideal form with "Unstoppable," which can be summed up thusly: Train out of control! Must stop train!
Cinematic narrative doesn't get any simpler than that, and Scott wisely keeps the premise pure, ratcheting up the tension and raising the emotional stakes without cluttering up the story's sleek lines. A young, inexperienced railroad conductor named Will (Chris Pine) is on his first shift with veteran train operator Frank (Denzel Washington) on the same day that a train carrying tons of hazardous materials has been sent hurtling down its tracks without a conductor or functioning brakes. With the help of a coolheaded train executive named Connie (Rosario Dawson), who keeps in near constant contact with the men, Will and Frank narrowly escape colliding with what she calls "a missile the size of the Chrysler Building." Out of harm's way, their next priority is to chase the errant locomotive down and stop it before it hits a dangerous S-curve and crashes in the middle of a busy Pennsylvania city.
As he did with his last movie, "The Taking of Pelham 123," Scott proves a master of action with "Unstoppable," which sustains a nicely simmering level of suspense and physical peril without succumbing to bombast or deafening overkill. This might be the quietest action movie ever made, and that observation is meant as a compliment: The audience can actually hear what the characters are saying, which in the case of Will and Frank at first mostly consists of the grizzled vet hazing the babyfaced newbie, then gives way to more soulful conversation about family and girl troubles. Washington and Pine quickly generate a bantering, easy rapport as lilting as the train they're on; if "Unstoppable" occasionally threatens to become the Battle of the Blinding White Smiles, those moments offer welcome warmth and improbable humor in what would otherwise be a technically adroit but emotionally cold exercise.
In Scott's capable hands, though, even the machines take on biomorphic qualities: He gives the runaway train its own moaning, menacing "voice" that makes it a character in its own right, like Thomas the Tank Engine crossed with Bruce the Shark. "Unstoppable" was inspired by a similar real-life case in Ohio in 2001, but Scott throws in plenty of extra cliffhangers, among them a separate train filled with field-tripping school kids and a horse trailer bestriding the tracks just as the titular train is about to barrel through.
While Will and Frank try to avoid being, as Frank says, "a wreck on a wreck," Connie is trying to outmaneuver her corporate bosses, whose concerns lie less with public safety or their employees' well-being than with their stock devaluations. A subtext of corporate greed, Rust Belt despair and common-man integrity rumbles alongside the movie's action, lending a sharp pang of timeliness to the adrenaline-pumping escapism. From the story itself to the way it's told, "Unstoppable" is a hymn to stylish, unpretentious competence.
Contains sequences of action and peril, and some profanity.