What did poor Colorado ever do to deserve this kind of biblical-scale pestilence? First came the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation fiasco, followed by the Columbine High School tragedy, followed — albeit on a lesser scale — by John Elway’s retirement. Now comes this unexpectedly compelling two-nighter in which a runaway freight train packed to the gills with nukes is headed straight for … Denver! As if the snakebitten state doesn’t have enough to worry about, now it gets Rob Lowe and a nuclear bomb threatening to blow it back to the Stone Age.
If the idea of Lowe careening out of control on a train serves to inspire a dozen career derailment jokes, spare them. In portraying the world’s bravest and most physically fit National Transportation Safety Board investigator, Lowe manages to carry himself with a mesmerizing machismo without ever going over the top. As occupational meltdowns go, this one finds Lowe dexterously evading any crash and burn. In short, the guy kicks butt.
In fact, until “Atomic Train” devolves into Armageddon-style hokum during the final of its four hours, it supplies a legitimately thrilling ride that feels a bit like the feature “Speed” transferred to a train. In both instances, the vehicle is literally an unstoppable time bomb that’s a collision away from disaster. And while the NBC mini lacks an irresistible nut case like Dennis Hopper, who gave “Speed” such fuel, it makes up for it with superb camera work and heart-thumping intensity.
That’s in part one, anyway. The second installment is another story entirely, trading that pulsating excitement for cliched predictability. But if there is anything audiences have learned about May sweeps, it is that the conclusion of a two-night film nearly always wallows in anticlimax.
Opening stanza expends a tad too much effort in making us care about the protagonists: hunky John Seger (Lowe), his wife Megan (“Melrose Place” alum Kristin Davis), Megan’s police captain ex-husband Mac (Esai Morales), John’s rebellious teenage daughter Grace (Mena Suvari) and Megan’s innocent young son Chance (Sean Smith). There is also a rookie cop (Erik King) and his pregnant wife (Karen Holmes) who appear to be around because they are black and thus bring racial diversity.
It’s tough to work up much of a sweat over family tensions when a nuclear disaster rings imminent. Fried engine hoses cause the brakes to go out on a train bound for Denver, picking up speed as word leaks that it’s carrying a cargo of nuclear waste and apparently a single Soviet-made nuclear device (slipped onto the train to avoid paying extra costs).
Efforts to slow the train fail as chaos mounts in Washington and throughout Colorado. Edward Herrmann makes a swell U.S. President, reassuring and authoritative. The tensions are played out with agonizing believability in the sleek opening installment penned by D. Brent Mote, Phil Penningroth and Rob Fresco.
Helmer Dick Lowry guides the action with a quick-cut vigor that keeps you on the edge of your seat, while Steven Fierberg’s camera work makes riveting use of the incessant tumult that explodes all around.
The feverish pace continues on into part two as workers struggle desperately to prevent the nuke from detonating in the aftermath of the train’s intentional derailment outside of Denver. Their efforts are in vain, and the resulting explosion halfway through the second night is depicted with bone-rattling impact.
But that’s pretty much where “Atomic Train” shuts off its brain. A second director (David Jackson) is added to the mix, and in this case two heads ain’t better than one. The storyline retreats into fallout-fueled outlandishness in which the devastated city produces one stereotypi-cal hero after another.
The oddly inspirational ending leaves a vast pool of questions in its wake. Why is it that nobody seems to comprehend that they will all be dead of radiation sickness in a matter of days or weeks — so, you know, like what’s the point? “Atomic Train” likewise ignores what role the mile-high air of Denver might play in all of this.
In other words, this turns out to be a potent little three-hour movie squeezed inside a four-hour timeslot, as one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole plot.Tech credits are top-notch across the board.