Saturday, November 13, 2010
We've had "Runaway Train," "Taking of the Pelham, 123," and "Murder on the Orient Express." Now we have Denzel Washington trying to stop an unmanned engine with hazardous chemicals in tow and speeding toward Stanton, Pennsylvania in "Unstoppable" (opened November 12 throughout San Diego).
Denzel Washington already has some cinematic train experience. He dealt with the baddies who took over a New York subway train in "Taking of the Pelham 123." Now he's playing Frank Barnes, a veteran engineer working for Allegheny and West Virginia Railroad (AWVR). On this particular morning, he's paired up with a young conductor named Will Colson (Chris "Captain Kirk" Pine). Colson is struggling with personal problems – his wife has a restraining order out on him and he can't see his kid – as well as a seeming inability to stick with any one job. Barnes, on the other hand, is a longtime engineer who knows the rails like the back of his hand…, which is a good thing considering how their day is about to play out.
Twentieth Century Fox
"Unstoppable" is loosely based on a 2001 incident in Ohio involving CSX locomotive 8888 -- pulling a 47-car yard train -- that left the yard under its own power and with no engineer onboard. The train traveled at high speeds for more than two hours and covered almost 70 miles before it was safely stopped by CSX engineer Jess Knowlton and conductor Terry Forson. Online you can find a play by play of the real event by a self-describe railroad junkie (a plug from one junkie to another). The real life incident was something out of a movie and now the movie version amps it up to make it more cinematic.
The film marks the fifth collaboration of actor Denzel Washington and director Tony Scott, and their second joint project involving trains (Scott directed "Pelham"). The result is a mindless popcorn movie that speeds frantically for almost as long as the real runaway train before grinding to an anticlimactic stop. Washington is essentially playing the same type of character as he did in "Pelham." Once again he's a longtime veteran and someone who knows his job far better than any higher up. He's a blue-collar hero who risks his life just because it's his job. As always, Washington is fun to watch and Pine makes a nice foil for him.
Twentieth Century Fox
Scott, as one might expect, pumps up the action and the decibels. He is really nothing more than a stylist. Sometimes he's a successful stylist and can deliver fun pictures like "True Romance" or "The Hunger." But content and character development are not really something he's interested in. I like the fact that even the publicity stills are pumped up with Scott's visual flair and have effects added to emphasize speed and action. The stills practically say "WHOOOOSH!" as you look at them. But then that's typical of Scott -- no subtlety but an emphasis on action.
Scott plays up the danger of the runaway train with constant reminders of the hazardous chemicals on board and the increasing population size of each town it passes. If this were a video game -- which it could easily be -- there would be a little ticker on the side letting us know how many people would die if the train crashed here... and then here... and then here. The problem with train movies, though, is that they are somewhat limited in what you can show. The engineer and conductor are confined for most of the film to a small space in the locomotive, and the train doesn't afford much variety of shot selections as it rushes by. We get a lot of shots of the train whizzing by in a blur and making a lot of noise. These images are intercut with people on phones, speakerphones, intercoms, cells, walkie-talkies, and what not. These are fairly talky and static in content so Scott tries to increase the tension with lots of cuts and movement even though people are essentially just talking about what to do. Adhering to the action-disaster formula, it's the guys and gals on the ground that know what to do and how best to do it while the upper management folks come across as incompetent idiots. Nothing new there.
The one refreshing note is Rosario Dawson as an in-control yardmaster who's not willing to take crap from her superiors. Dawson invests the role with energy and smarts. She's a nice addition to the film.
"Unstoppable" (rated PG-13 for sequences of action and peril, and some language) is unremarkable and that's probably my biggest complaint. There's nothing offensively bad about it but then there's nothing really noteworthy either. It's rushes ahead on adrenaline-infused energy but then comes to an abrupt and rather ho-hum conclusion. It's diverting entertainment and quickly forgettable.
Companion viewing: "Runaway Train," "Strangers on a Train," "Taking of the Pelham 123," "The General"