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Unstoppable (2010) ***

November 12, 2010

written by: Mark Bomback
produced by: Tony Scott, Julie Yorn, Mimi Rogers, Eric McLeod & Alex Young
directed by: Tony Scott
rated PG-13 for sequences of action and peril, and some language.
1 hr. 38 min.
U.S. release date: November 12, 2010
Some guys like to get together and shoot stuff. That stuff could be guns or the breeze but when it is movies and the relationship becomes a well-oiled symbiotic process, it’s becomes an inseparable cinematic bromance. John Ford had John Wayne. Martin Scorsese had Robert DeNiro, before he moved on to Leonardo DiCaprio. Tim Burton has Johnny Depp. Ridley Scott has Russell Crowe and his brother, director Tony Scott, has Denzel Washington. Not every film these men have made together are great, but they have often proven to be the best elements of their films. Scott and Washington’s latest, “Unstoppable” is a good example of that.
Did you hear about that runaway train in Ohio back in 2001? Neither did I. Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard”) did though and loosely bases his broad screenplay on that blip of an event. Scott, a veteran of high-octane pictures, is perfect for this action with his signature whirling camera shots that zoom in and out, focusing on big and loud, rather than any characterization. And really, anyone expecting something deep or character-driven, is sitting in the wrong theater. The star of the movie is an unmanned freight train after all, the actors just need to either hold on, watch on the side, or jump out of the way.
The film starts with typical action movie set-up, putting the main players in line and connecting all the needed pieces to get this train running. In a train yard in Southern Pennsylvania, we watch as a doofus engineer named Dewey (Ethan Suplee, appropriately atypical) manages to let a half-mile-long freight train carrying combustible liquids and poisonous gas slip out of his hands. Real smooth, dude. At first, everyone thinks it’s a coaster, which is something that can probably be handled with a little work, But then Dewey tells freaked-out dispatcher Connie (Rosario Dawson) that, uh, well, it might’ve sorta slipped into full throttle. Added to the mix is a safety Inspector Werner (Kevin Corrigan) who just happened to pick today to visit the command center. Dóh!
While that mayhem begins, we’re also introduced to young train conductor, Will Colson (Chris Pine), rumored to be a nepotism hire, as he enters orientation. He’s seeking out his mentor for training day, veteran engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) and next thing we know they’ve climbed into their locomotive. At first, we see some sparks fly between the old school and the perceived new upstart, but it doesn’t take long for them to share the requisite hard luck stories about their family lives. It’s paper-thin development, but at least Washington and Pine sell it well. They both know there’s no need to add or take away from what little characterization given, since pretty soon everything will be too fast for anyone to care.
Word travels to Will and Frank that there is a runaway “missile” (as Connie describes it) blazing its way through the state at 74mph, with the possibility of detonating a small town upon impact. Despite the disapproval of Connie’s boss, Gavin (Kevin Dunn, atypical bureaucrat mode), who would rather knock off a city than see their stock plummet, Will and Frank realize that they may be the only chance slow down this speed demon. As local and national media flock to these usually peaceful tracks, this unlikely duo brave peril to try to grab that locomotive by the tail and slow it down before it takes out Scranton, PA.  
Back in the adrenalized 90’s, a movie like this was coming out at least once a year. Maybe it would’ve starred Keanu Reeves or Kurt Russell, maybe even Stallone or Segal, but they would usually involve terrorist of some sort. The terror here is a man-made behemoth fueled by human error, that has to be corrected by human valor. Despite all the conventional trappings on display here, it’s hard to complain about something this courageous, especially when it’s based on true events, loosely or not. The familiarity of it all kind of puts a smile on your face, making it easy to get swept away by Scott’s sweeping camera that captures every possible angle of this monstrous event. 
Since the story is basically set in one location, so Bomback can’t help but to conjure up generic backstories for Will and Frank. They each have their own female problems, and divulge this in a manner of confession rather than complaining which calms any unease or tension between them. Still, this is a film about a runaway train, so there’s no time these two to squabble or commiserate. Thankfully, there’s a definite chemistry with both actors, visible in both their banter and their physical risks. Frank may be the older and wiser one, but he doesn’t let Will get all the action. And yes, that is Washington leaping across the train car roofs as the train increases speed. Whether he’s crazy or craving for realism, viewers will be convinced.

UNSTOPPABLE Denzel Washington

This is the fifth collaboration between Scott and Washington, their last film “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” involved trains as well, was a derailed dud. Scott’s slick visuals couldn’t make up for Travolta’s awful overacting. At least all the acting here serves the plot, adding well-placed humor when needed. I’m glad Scott eases up on his whiplash visuals in order to build the right amount of manic momentum.
It’s difficult to want more out of “Unstoppable” when all the elements run this smoothly and it comes from a real situation. Scott was recently a candidate to direct the new Superman movie and after watching this film live up to its title, I can understand Warner Bros. looking at him to take on an icon who’s “faster than a speeding bullet”. With its stunning effects and spectacular stunts, “Unstoppable” delivers a rare white-knuckle intensity suitable for any age. It turns out to be surprisingly more satisfying than it has a right to be.  If it had me on edge as I boarded the subway train after screening the film, that proves to me it was done right. 



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