Atomic train's a-comin', toot-toot-boom! Run for your very life! Run for a very good book! Or at least, run for your very channel changer! Nobody needs a stupid old atomic train in their face.
Loud, long, noisy and corny, "Atomic Train" roars onto NBC tonight, creating quite a mess in more ways than one. A bombastic disaster movie about a runaway train carrying a nuclear warhead, the film has generated the kind of advance buzz that even publicity-mad NBC doesn't like.
In the version shown to critics, the train also carries nuclear waste, barrels and barrels of it, and the drip-drip-drip from one or more barrels starts early. Protests from the railroad and the nuclear energy industries forced NBC to make last-minute editing.
NBC has yanked a promo claiming that "80 tons of nuclear material pass through your back yard every year" and asking rhetorically, "What if one day something went terribly wrong?" Instead, the two-part film, airing tonight and Monday at 9 on Channel 4, will be preceded both nights by an unusually lavish network disclaimer: "The events portrayed in this miniseries are pure fiction. They are not based on fact, and we do not suggest or imply in any way that these events could actually occur."
Something still goes "terribly wrong": the movie. Its basic story of a runaway train hurtling toward Denver with an atomic bomb on board will remain, full of sound and fury and hooey and hokum. No matter how many spurious cliffhangers and improbable perils are thrown into the mix, seldom if ever does the film engage the emotions or pound the pulse. It's just too much too often, a new trumped-up crisis around every curve and just before every commercial.
The atomic train does not run on atomic energy. It's just a plain old train on a run from Idaho to Colorado. Its problem is that it's fraught with frightful freight. Not only are there tubs of whatever NBC censors change the nuclear waste into, but for good measure an unscrupulous businessman sneaks a nuclear missile into a crate that supposedly contains Russian caviar.
"We're a rolling Chernobyl," laments Wally the engineer, though now that line of dialogue may end up on ye olde cutting room floor.
Written by a large gaggle of writers, or maybe by 50 monkeys at 50 typewriters, the film is so crowded with catastrophes that it quickly becomes ludicrous. Many of the mini-disasters that lead up to the big disaster come about because the characters behave like imbeciles.
In cooking up cheap thrills, the writers send out alarmist hysterics about train safety or the alleged lack thereof. To make matters worse, in the original version the opening credits roll over newsreel footage of actual train disasters. Then comes a gratuitous dramatized close call: In Denver, a school bus full of children stalls on the tracks as a bombless train rapidly approaches.
As the train barrels down (it can't stop, the bus can't go), the children and a teacher on board follow prescribed safety procedures, at least the Hollywood version of them: They stare out the windows at the rampaging locomotive instead of doing the logical thing and getting the heck off the bus. Fortunately, the bus moves just in time.
Later in the film, when various efforts are being tried to stop the runaway atomic train, a helicopter flies in emergency workers, and where does it land? On the tracks, of course! Right there on the tracks with an out-of-control atomic train zooming toward it. The characters in this movie behave so foolishly they almost seem to be begging to be blown up.
Rob Lowe stars as an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. Lowe's performance is more gymnastic than emotive. He's lowered onto the train by rope from a helicopter. Then he has to climb all around the crazy thing--over, under, between cars, along the sides--trying to fix this and that. Meanwhile, ahead in Denver, his wife, Megan, played by Kristin Davis, drives around town trying to find their bratty teen-age daughter so the family can get out of town.
The only shocking thing about this is that Rob Lowe is now old enough to play the father of a bratty teenage daughter.
Even before the uproar about the nuclear cargo, NBC's Denver affiliate had decided not to air "Atomic Train" because of the tragic school shootings in Littleton. It's just as well, since the film makes the people of Denver look like renegade Neanderthals. Told to evacuate the city in case the train can't be stopped, many citizens instantly choose instead to go berserk, looting and rioting and smashing store windows.
There is one troubling shot of teenage or early-twenties males gleefully stealing rifles and handguns from a gun shop and waving them in the air.
In Washington, Edward Herrmann as the president of the United States consults advisers on what to do. Naturally a bald, hawkish general wants to nuke the nuke-train before it nukes Denver. It's decided instead to derail the train in the mountains. The derailer is installed on the tracks. Then, oops, it's decided not to derail the train in the mountains. The derailer is hastily removed from the tracks.
Esai Morales plays a cop who's also Megan's former husband. His shift from moderately bad guy in early scenes to essentially good guy in later ones is one of the few bits of subtlety in the picture. Morales is more telegenic and a better actor than Lowe and by rights should have been given the heroic lead role. The film's two directors, Dick Lowry and David Jackson (billed in reverse order the second night), hippity-hop from the scene of one snafu to the site of another, most of the calamities random and unaffecting.
Hoses break, throttles stick, a would-be rescue train rams the atomic train, the teenage daughter's boyfriend suffers a broken leg, engineer Wally fractures his ankle, the price of gas in Denver goes up to $20 a gallon, Megan's cell phone fails (wouldn't ya know?) and there's even, yes, a deadly owl attack!!!
What next?! Who cares!?
On and on goes the atomic train, lurching and spurting, slowing down and then, darn the luck, speeding up again. Some of the stupendous explosions in Part 2 are indeed awe-inspiring, but by that time, many viewers are likely to be all calamitied out. For the most part, "Atomic Train" runs around in circles--eventually rear-ending itself. Oh, it's a disaster movie, all right.
CAPTION: Rob Lowe has a disaster of horrific proportions on his hands with "Atomic Train," tonight on NBC.