Tailor made to director Tony Scott’s aggressive and intense filmmaking sensibilities, his ferocious new thriller Unstoppable is a wildly entertaining throwback to the mid-to-late-90’s “high-concept” actioner genre that he helped pioneer. Sort of like Speed but refreshingly lacking a mad-man terrorist character, the film is inspired by true events (most of the craziness depicted in the film did happen in real life…) and doesn’t suffer in the slightest when it comes to a non-existent mega-villain. The runaway train at the center of the film is mean and nasty enough. Scott, working for the fifth time with Denzel Washington and for the first time with rising star Chris Pine (the new captain Kirk in the recently re-booted Star Trek franchise), gets two meaty, manly performances from his charismatic leads, and as usual, peppers his film with a terrific supporting cast (Rosario Dawson, Kevin Dunn, Ethan Suplee, Kevin Corrigan [love this guy!], T.J. Miller, scene-stealer Lew Temple, and David Warshofsky all pop up in key roles). Mark Bomback’s lean, fast-moving screenplay injects nice character beats all throughout the narrative as opposed to front-loading the first act with nothing but background and exposition. We get to learn about the characters as the movie progresses, while Bomback (with certain help from action-maestro Scott) piles on the near-death encounters that Washington and Pine have to contend with. There’s also a quiet little streak of anger running throughout Unstoppable when it comes to the way mega-corporations care more about their bottom line than the lives and well-being of their employees; the subversive subtext is there no matter how much it’s overshadowed by explosions and flipping-cars.
Based on a true story from 2001 where an unmanned train carrying highly-toxic chemicals careened through the Ohio countryside at speeds of up to 45 mph, Unstoppable ups the ante considerably (now a heavily populated city is in jeopardy and the train is chugging along at close to 70 mph) but still stays true to the events that inspired it. Due to simple human error, one segment of the train dislodged from the main portion, and with the gears stuck in forward motion, took off down the track. The fact that the engineer most responsible had left the train car for a moment didn't help the situation either. Most people won’t know much about trains going into this film (I know I didn’t) but by the end, you’ll certainly have a better understanding of how they work and just how dangerous they really are. Credit goes to Washington and Pine for never over-stating the obvious; the two are playing men of action who rise to the occasion when they are needed (a theme running all throughout Scott’s body of work) and they never go over the top with their performances. Pine, in particular, has a great way of never seeming overly pushy as an actor; he possesses that natural quality that Robert Downey Jr. has in that it just seems like he’s being himself at all times. Washington seems completely at ease under Scott’s direction and does a nice variation on the same character that he’s been perfecting for the last 10-15 years. There’s nothing complicated about Unstoppable – how will these two train operators (one a veteran, one a rookie) stop the runaway bomb-on-wheels and save the day?
There’s a certain element of predictable eventuality to Unstoppable – it seems inconceivable to think that the train will really crash and eviscerate close to a million innocent people. So without spoiling anything (and there are a few surprises in Bomback’s propulsive script), I’ll say that Scott keeps you interested the entire time, not only by destroying any number of things that get in the train’s way as it charges towards its destination, but by staying focused on the brass-tacks of the story and never succumbing to cheap humor or stupid side distractions. So it’s no real secret to reveal that the real star of Unstoppable, beyond the train itself, is Scott the auteur. No other filmmaker, to my recollection, has transported their audience directly on a train in the way that Scott does in Unstoppable. Every single shot in the film looks real – viciously, dangerously real. At no time do you feel like you’re watching actors on a set or in front of a green screen, which goes a long way in making the entire movie feel vital and alive. The elaborate and amazing sound design deserves Oscar nominations; this is a loud but detail-loud sound mix that enormously enhances the film. The aerial photography is stunning, with numerous shots of the hard-charging train going neck and neck with helicopters and pick-up trucks that are trying to stop it. Scott, along with the gifted cinematographer Ben Serensin (Transformers 2), always manages to keep all of the action coherent and spatially understandable, without ever sacrificing in the style department. They’re aided immensely by Scott’s long-time, go-to editor Chris Lebenzon and Robert Duffy. All of Scott’s kinetic shooting and editing tricks (jump-cuts, de-saturated color palette, on-screen titles) are employed during Unstoppable, so as a result, some people might get motion sickness, as the camera never stops swirling, never takes a breather, and is always on high alert. It’s visceral filmmaking of the highest order and a further reminder that Scott is the best in the business when it comes to this sort of stuff. On pure entertainment value alone, Unstoppable is the most satisfying of the year.