How the hell could anyone imagine there’d be anything good about a film involving a runaway train directed by the mostly hacksploitative, superbly incompetent Tony Scott? You got an hour and 40 minutes, a rural section of Pennsylvania, and a train. That’s it. There are no twists in Unstoppable. No villains. No love stories. No dreams within a dream. No farting dogs, asteroids, aliens, meta-references, magic spells, guns or swords. It’s just a train. And it’s going fast. How could that work?
No idea, but hell if Unstoppable isn’t one righteous fucking action flick. That train is fast. And it will run your ass over, people. If Chris Pines’ charmingly shit-eating grin won’t melt your hearts, ladies, Unstoppable will melt the underwire in your brassieres. To resort to pedantic critic-speak: Unstoppable is one seriously bad-ass, big-dick runaway train motion picture.
The simple plot, the lack of much of anything resembling a story, and the near absence of character development doesn’t give a guy much to talk about in discussing a movie of Unstoppable’s nature, but that’s truly what makes Unstoppable a success: It’s just a train. Going really fast. And you’ve got two guys — Frank (Denzel Washington), a veteran engineer, and Will (Chris Pine), a rookie conductor — chasing that steel beast down before it flies off the rails and destroys an entire town. It’s the stuff of which great B-movies are made.
How does an unmanned train find itself hurtling down a track at 70 miles per hour carrying 39 train cars containing highly flammable toxic chemicals? Simple incompetence, human error, and bad luck. Dewey (Ethan Suplee), tasked with parking the train that’s air brakes have malfunctioned, sets it on autopilot, jumps off and runs ahead of it to switch the tracks, only to have the train get away from him and slowly begin to pick up speed. It’s the sort of narrative jumpstart so dumb that it could only be inspired by true events — a 2001 incident involving a similar unmanned train locked in the throttle position carrying the same toxic materials that took a 66-mile journey through rural Ohio before a crew prevented it from derailing.
Frank, in stereotypical “too old for this shit” mode, and Will, the hot-shot rookie with marital problems, are in another train heading right toward the unmanned train when they get caught up in the events, guided by what must be the hottest dispatcher in all of America, Connie (Rosario Dawson). She shouts and ties her hair back, while Denzel furrows his brows and Pine smirks and speaks sparingly in his Christian Slater cum Jack Nicholson voice. It’s all they’re asked to do, and it’s all that Unstoppable needs.
Mostly, it’s about that train. And that train is going fast. The movie begins and ends with the train’s motion, and credit Tony Scott for never stopping for heroic speeches about sacrifice or macho bravado. It’s a utilitarian film — there’s just enough character development to help you invest slightly in the characters, just enough characters to get you from A to B, and just enough action to speed you through 100 minutes.
If you’re not a fan of shaky cam, though, take a bucket in which to vomit. Paul Greengrass must have thrown down the gauntlet, and Scott must have accepted the challenge, because much of Unstoppable looks like it was filmed from inside a spinning dryer inside a concrete mixer. There are scenes where you have no fucking idea what’s going on, but as long as the train remains in motion, the tension continues to build. It’s relentless and gripping, even when there’s little investment in the stakes.
Indeed, Unstoppable, based on Mark Bomback’s three-sentence script — “There’s a train! It’s going fast! Stop it!” — is perfectly suited to Tony Scott’s frenetic style. He’s never asked to develop a story or characters — hell, that would take attention away from the train, which is going really fast, by the way — so he’s left to do what Tony Scott does best: Put some film in the camera, throw the camera at the train, and edit together the results with some really loud noises. Any brain-damaged chimpanzee could do it, which of course makes Scott the ideal choice. If you want an unpretentious, brain-dead action flick brimming with adrenaline, Tony Scott — whose balls are bigger than his brains, and whose attention span precludes unnecessary contrivances or complexities — is the guy to do it. And Unstoppable, like the events in the film, is the perfect confluence of the exact right kind of incompetence to make a competently entertaining flick.