I’m somewhat at a loss to explain how good a film Unstoppable is. Once it starts, you think you know everything that’s going to happen—a train gets out of control, and two guys need to stop it. Along the way they’ll encounter some human obstacles and gain a few allies, and, oh yeah, the stakes have to be really high, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Denzel Washington is the old hand working for the railroad company who knows all the tricks that those fancy, rich-and-inexperienced college kids (Chris Pine), with their degrees in Physics, Metallurgy, and What-Have-You think they do. Rosario Dawson plays the station controller racing-against-time and being the mediator who’s trying to juggle both Washington, trying to stop the train, and the head of her company, who’s trying to minimize the casualties and maintain the bottom line.
The situation itself begins harmlessly enough: Ethan Suplee is a dim-witted railroad worker who’s switching trains at the station and leaves his cab to manually change a switch. He fails to catch up to the train, and the situation escalates from there due to a series of train mechanics I won’t even attempt to describe. But the point is things get out of hand, and soon a half-mile freight train filled with combustibles and toxic gas is barreling at 70 miles per hour down the tracks and hell-bent on taking out a nearby city.
Washington and Pine are on their way back from a job when they discover the runaway train on their tracks, and Washington does some quick calculations and realizes that he and Pine are the only people in a position to stop it. While they take off down the tracks, Dawson is their aforementioned liaison and informant, passing the official message from the railway company that they’re not allowed to try stopping the train, but secretly cheering them on.
Action films seem to work on the quality of the director, because we’ve seen so many that we know everything that’s going to happen: The hero will overcome tremendous odds, get the girl, and there’ll be a whole lotta explosions before it’s over. So the trick for the director is taking everything you know and expect and still make it exciting. And Tony Scott not only does an amazing job; he gives us his most tense film since Crimson Tide.
Even knowing how the situation would play out, I was totally convinced by the performances and circumstance—Washington of course does a fine job, but I was more impressed with Chris Pine as the young engineer. When we’re first introduced to him, the shot made me a bit worried that he’d be treated as eye candy, but fortunately that’s not the case; there’s a critical seriousness he brings to the role when a lesser performer would be self-aware. And Rosario Dawson has the thankless task of providing a lot of exposition and trying to seem like a real person. She’s aided by a hearty helping of newscasts that update the characters, and hence, us, on the situation, and neither ever come off as forced.
But again, I’m not sure I’m doing the film justice. Reading over the review, on paper Unstoppable sounds almost silly, but Scott somehow makes it believable. I think one of the reasons is that he crafts the characters so well—they have more problems, make more bad jokes, and even, yes, make more mistakes than your typical action stars, so by the time the freight starts to hit the fan (and the slow burn as it does is another deft touch) you care.
The last thing I think puts Unstoppable above your average smash-up film is that it uses the characters’ reactions to tell the story. The train itself is daunting, but, as it was with Jaws, the director never forgets the human element and knows that a slight pause and a scared look is more effective than any monster (or explosive, giant train).
And, of course, there’s the action, which looks gritty and realistic—and I understand that all the trains are real, which made it all the more impressive. No mistake: Unstoppable is one of the best films of the year.