A film review by Craig J. Koban November 19, 2010


2010, PG-13, 93 mins.


Barnes: Denzel Washington / Colson: Chris Pine / Connie: Rosario Dawson / Dewey: Ethan Suplee / Galvin: Kevin Dunn

Directed by Tony Scott / Written by Mark Bomback

Many film critics often comment that action thrillers are only as good as their villains.  Now, if you don’t have much of a villain, per se, in the film, then I would postscript that conceit by saying that these types of films are only as good as their premise, and UNSTOPPABLE is proof positive of that assertion.  

It contains as simplistic and economical of a hook as any recent action movie I’ve seen – a long freight train lacking a conductor and containing dangerously explosive material is speeding out of control and threatens to derail in the middle of a town, killing all of its inhabitants – but UNSTOPPABLE takes this remarkably meager premise and crafts a red-blooded, fever pitched, adrenaline induced, and exhilaratingly paced action film.  By the time the film’s credits rolled by I found myself willing to forgive its shortcomings and admire it as a fantastically executed technical exercise. 

Okay, so how does this runaway train become a potentially explosive missile on rail tracks?  It begins when an engineer (Ethan Suplee) begins his day as he always does at the rail yards; at one routine point of his daily rounds he dismounts from what he thinks is an idling freight train, but he realizes - to his shock and dismay after he departs it - that it actually speeds away so fast that he can no longer get back on.  No problem, he believes, as he tells his superior at dispatch, Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson, headstrong and cunning, and perhaps the hottest rail dispatcher in film history) that the train is simply a “coaster” and will eventually stop.  Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that it accidentally has its throttle set at maximum and is alarmingly gaining speed.  A train filled with hazardous materials that is just coasting is one thing, but if it's approaching unstoppable speeds and will eventually come to a sharp turn that it will not make in a Pennsylvania town of nearly 800,000 people, then…well…oops. 

We then cut to two other railway men: the wise old veteran of nearly 30 years, Frank (Denzel Washington, dependable and sturdy) and a wet-behind-the-ears rookie named Will (STAR TREK’s new Captain Kirk, Chris Pine, matching his co-star’s no-nonsense resiliency and rugged credibility), who is experiencing his first day on the job, much to the chagrin of Frank, who hates breaking in new blood (especially when it appears that the company is bringing in low-paid new help to replace hirer paid, experienced help).  While the pair bickers through their first morning on the job, they slowly become aware of the out-of-control train that left its station.  Things get really dicey for Frank and Will when, after missing an important turn off due to a greenhorn mistake by Will, their train is on a collision course with the runaway locomotive.  Oops. 

While this is occurring, Connie back at dispatch is on the line with the railroad’s corporate office in Pittsburgh, and one executive there (Kevin Dunne) and his partners are only concerned with the cost of purposely derailing the train in a secluded area free of people and the stock market effects as well in its aftermath.  After realizing that derailing and losing some cash would be better than the lawsuits from the families of hundreds of thousands of dead people, the upper brass decide to derail the train, but the locomotive has achieved so much velocity that this plan immediately fails.  Worse yet, Frank and Will seem to be getting alarmingly close to the train itself, putting their own lives at risk. 

I don’t want to say much more about what happens next during UNSTOPPABLE, but I'll say that the fiendishly clever screenplay by Mark Bomback (LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD) does manage to get Frank and Will’s train off of a collision course with the 39-car freight train/explosive projectile, but the script gets even craftier with the plan that Frank and Will decide to execute – which involves using their own locomotive – to catch up with the runaway train in order to stop it.  By this point in the story you stop incredulously picking apart the logic of the film and instead just become engulfed by the whole spectacle of its final 60 minutes of merciless, pulse pounding action. 

UNSTOPPABLE was directed by Tony Scott, a man that I can best describe as being a “Red Bull filmmaker” if there ever was one.  By that I mean that his overall aesthetic style can be best described as "hyper-caffeinated."  He’s also somewhat uneven and inconsistent as a director: at times, his insatiable lust for unnecessarily disorienting visual hubris pummels viewers into submission, so much so that it drains us from our immersion in his film’s stories (see MAN ON FIRE, DOMINO, and, to a bit lesser of a degree, last year’s THE TAKING OF PEHLAM 123).  His in-your-face, MTV-inspired visual style of employing telephoto close-ups, headache inducing pans and swishes, staccato cinematography, and editing that surely causes epileptic seizures in some viewers is hard to digest in most of his films.  Oftentimes, he de-personalizes his action films by not giving the stories and characters room to breathe. 

Now, having said that, I believe that UNSTOPPABLE is finally a film that effectively harnesses Scott’s ocular crippling style to proper effect.   Since the film is not truly reliant on story and character development, it must then rely on craftsmanship to amp up the tension and intrigue to eleven, and Scott certainly does not disappoint in this arena.  This film may not be Scott as his most frenetic and spastic, but the manner he careens and thrusts his camera in and out of the trains playing the ultimate game of chicken only heightens the film's disorienting sense of high suspense.  His style should be a reflection of the fast, loud, and uncontrollable freight train that serves as the film’s furious antagonist.  One other exemplary aspect of Scott’s choices here are how he thanklessly does not engage in CGI overkill (and if it’s there, it’s seamless and invisible) and instead opts for real world location shooting where apparently real trains slice and propel through the industrial panoramas of the Pennsylvania countryside.  Combining with the menacing way that Scott shoots the trains are the sound effects, which bellow out with a satisfyingly monstrous roar: the train feels less like a machine and more like a living, breathing, fire and brimstone howling animal. 

UNSTOPPABLE does have some issues, like the not-so-subtle sermonizing of how the recession-plagued economy has forced egregious industries to make cut backs that effect Frank’s tenure and retirement as a conductor, not to mention that the corporate men and women back in cozy offices seem more lazily presented as one-note, money-loving baddies out to make a buck first and save lives second (for as greedy as corporations are, wouldn’t threatening nearly a millions lives have more negative consequences on their back end than derailing a train?).  Beyond that, character development with Frank's and Will’s characters takes some unnecessary detours in hopes of fleshing them out more.  Especially funny – in purely unintentional ways – is Frank referencing that his semi-estranged teen daughters work at Hooters, which leads to a lot of pointless and gratuitous product placement shots of the daughters and their scantily clad waitress colleagues watching their father’s struggles on live TV from work. 

Yet, those are just nitpicks, because UNSTOPPABLE emerges beyond the guise of a SPEED or RUNAWAY TRAIN clone: it’s never truly interested in flesh and blood personas and captivating narrative threads as much as it's compelled by unleashing 95 minutes of pure, unadulterated mayhem and thrills.  Considering the film’s very scant premise, UNSTOPPABLE is a tour de force example of high octane, full throttle, and breathlessly paced action filmmaking (few action thrillers as of late can match this one’s final hour for pure excitement during which you will never check your watch out of boredom).  Plus, isn’t it nice to see normal, blue-collar, working class men and women as resourceful, courageous, and selfless action heroes instead of spandex clad superheroes and M16-packing super soldiers? 

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