THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Chris Pine and Denzel Washington ride the rails in the enormously entertaining Unstoppable.
When something big goes out of control in the movies, it's often pretty entertaining. I remember the first time I saw Speed, in which a bus rampaged through a city at high speeds. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. Of course, runaway trains are more common on screen than speeding buses (most cinematic trains seem to go out of control, now that I think about it), but that doesn't mean that it isn't still exciting when it happens. Unstoppable is the latest picture about an errant locomotive. Fast-paced and increasingly tense, it delivers the goods.
Denzel Washington plays Frank Barnes, an aging engineer paired up with newbie conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine). They're heading north on a Pennsylvania track when an error sends an unmanned, half-mile long freight train speeding toward them from the opposite direction. The train is carrying explosive materials, and it needs to be stopped before it reaches their hometown of Stanton, where the track becomes elevated and goes around a sharp bend. Rosario Dawson plays Connie Hooper, the yardmaster who tries to figure out a safe solution to the problem, only to repeatedly clash with the company that owns the train and, for PR reasons, is inclined to take potentially deadly chances on half-baked plans. Barnes radios Connie to tell her that he knows a way to slow the train down, but it will put his and Colson's lives at risk.
Unstoppable gets one thing completely, totally right, and that's the frightening idea of a freight train run amok. There are shots of the speeding locomotive barreling through small towns, just feet from houses and offices and businesses. The massive size and weight of these machines comes across with complete clarity, so that you never once doubt the horrific consequences that would occur should the thing derail. Several schemes are hatched to stop or slow the train down, each with their own set of add-on hazards. Just when you think each one will work, some new monkey wrench gets thrown in. The screenplay, by Mark Bomback, gives you a strong sense of how massive an undertaking it would be to bring something like this under control.
It's nice, too, that Barnes and Colson never turn into superheroes. They are ordinary guys, who rely on knowledge and experience. Even when left with no choice but to take a physical risk, they aren't capable of anything superhero-like. There is a moment when Barnes is running atop the train cars, jumping from one to the next. He reaches a spot where the jump is too far. In a bad movie, he'd go for it anyway, dangle by his fingertips, and somehow manage to pull himself up. Here, he does what you or I would do; he recognizes that he won't make it and stops. The movie is grounded in enough reality that it generates suspense honestly, which is what makes it so thrilling to watch.
I have two gripes. One is that the humans are upstaged by the trains. The guys are given meaningless personal dilemmas: Barnes has a college-age daughter who resents the time he's spent away from home, while Colson has an estranged wife. Neither of these subplots is given much heft, and both are resolved with the kind of "do something heroic and everything will be all right" nonsense that only ever happens in the movies.
My other gripe is that director Tony Scott seems to run out of tricks, and so he repeats himself. For example, every time there's a shot of Denzel Washington in the train cab, the camera circles around him, always in the same direction, over and over. This shot is repeated so many times that it becomes distracting. Granted, it's hard to make the cramped interior of a train visually exciting, but it would have been okay to keep the camera still once in a while. There are also too many shots from the track's point of view, as the train rolls over it. Scott additionally relies too much on fake TV news footage in which reporters explain what's going on. We know what's going on, so this seems redundant.
I can fault these things, but I can't fault the action. Unstoppable doesn't try to be much more than a runaway train movie, and it's an effective runaway train movie. In fact, it's everything you could want from a runaway train movie. With tight editing, smart plotting, and a wise preference for practical effects over CGI, this is 98 minutes of pure adrenaline-pumping bliss.
( out of four)
Unstoppable is rated PG-13 for for sequences of action and peril and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.