Pop quiz, hotshot: If an unmanned freight train loaded with hazardous cargo leaves the station heading south at 70 mph, and another train departs half an hour later in the opposite direction with Denzel Washington and Chris Pine aboard, how long until the movie stars save the day? Answer: Nearly half of Tony Scott’s refreshingly lucid “Unstoppable” unfolds without the leads realizing what’s at stake, but as soon as they’re thrust into the path of a runaway train, things hit white-knuckle intensity in a hurry. This gripping brink-of-disaster ride from Fox should see solid earnings unobstructed well into the holidays.
“Unstoppable” is a curious kind of action movie, one that tells its nail-biting story largely through the lens of Fox News and several local TV affiliates. While Washington and Pine play blue-collar heroes on the track, news choppers follow the action from the air, stoking the excitement with footage formatted to fit the widescreen and then downgraded to look as though it were broadcast via less-than-hi-def monitors.
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Corporate agenda aside, the frequent use of news cameras is just the latest tool in Scott’s move toward camera ubiquity, a stylistic preference that favors alternating between as many angles as possible over trying to get a single, defining point of view on a scene. Without sacrificing an ounce of energy, Scott’s approach is actually more restrained than in recent Washington collaborations; this is his fifth film with the star, and it feels downright classical when compared with the semi-delirious flurries that were “Deja Vu” and “Man on Fire.”
Opening with the words “inspired by true events,” “Unstoppable” may strain plausibility, but is considerably more realistic than, say, the hysterical 1999 NBC mini “Atomic Train,” which ended with the nuclear destruction of Denver, or even Scott’s recent “Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” remake. Screenwriter Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard”) lifts the setup from the 2001 “Crazy Eights” case, in which a train traveled 66 miles from Toledo, Ohio, without anyone aboard. Then, without introducing something so artificial as a terrorist plot or a “Speed”-style villain, Bomback ups the stakes by doubling the velocity and including eight cars of highly flammable hazardous material.
The culprit is an engineer (played by “My Name Is Earl’s” Ethan Suplee) who mistakenly puts the locomotive in full throttle before climbing out of the cab, only to watch the “coaster” gain speed as it leaves the station. “This kind of thing happens,” yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) cool-headedly explains, restoring exactly no one’s confidence in railroad safety, especially as Scott gooses the over-the-top scenario with explosions and various obstacles on the track.
But Hooper’s a pro. The lone woman in a testosterone-driven work environment, she’s doing her best to manage the situation from the confines of a control booth, while grizzled old-timer Frank Barnes (Washington) and fresh-from-training young turk Will Colson (Pine) leisurely spar in the field. If there’s one person who can wring drama from a disconnected nerve center, it’s Scott, who puts Hooper in the eye of a perfect storm involving corporate pressures (embodied by Kevin Dunn as the ass-covering boss who begs to be overruled), a visiting federal safety inspector (Kevin Corrigan) and a gaggle of elementary school children positioned directly in the path of the oncoming train.
Given the linear, one-track nature of the plot, Scott and Bomback prove surprisingly effective at delivering a well-rounded experience, going out of their way to fill in the personalities of their two leads. Like Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” “Unstoppable” serves as a testament to hard-working Americans and poses the rescue efforts as something of a suicide mission, undertaken by imperfect family men willing to risk their own lives to prevent the train from jumping the rails in densely populated Stanton, Pa.
Their only hope is to climb aboard the locomotive and cut the power, but before that can happen, they first have to slow it down. The title refers to not only the high-speed threat but also the hardheaded heroes who harness it, and the action really kicks into gear once Washington and Pine (who get to flex their dramatic muscles a bit as married fathers with complicated family lives) set out to chase down the train.
Until then, only Hooper and the aforementioned news orgs seem to have a handle on things. Though it’s easy to imagine Fox and friends seeing this as a big story, the sheer logistical manpower required to cover it is staggering, encompassing animated worst-case-scenario diagrams, instant replay capabilities and a fleet of helicopters. The latter makes for the film’s most dramatic footage (overseen by aerial d.p. David B. Nowell), allowing anchors to talk auds through the more intense moments.
Even Harry Gregson-Williams’ score sounds like something designed for the evening news, while dramatic sound design lends rumbling menace to otherwise silly shots of the empty, million-ton train.