A film review by Craig J. Koban November 19, 2010
2010, PG-13, 93 mins.
2010, PG-13, 93 mins.
Barnes: Denzel Washington /
Colson: Chris Pine /
Connie: Rosario Dawson /
Dewey: Ethan Suplee /
Galvin: Kevin Dunn
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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?