Director Tony Scott and actor Denzel Washington must love working on films with breakaway trains. Last year the mediocre “Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” was released and featured a runaway subway train. Now “Unstoppable” comes along and gives us a runaway freight train. This time the duo gets it right.
Washington stars as Frank Barnes, a veteran railroad engineer. Barnes is a man who has seen it all and is the wiser for it. On this day he has to work with a union upstart conductor named Will Colson (Chris Pine). Barnes is not thrilled to working with the wet behind the ears Colson. There is an uneasy tension between the two men separated by a generation.
We soon find out that the two do have something in common. Their family lives are in shambles. Barnes’s wife had died from cancer and he has an uneasy relationship with his two daughters. Colson is separated from his wife and his daughter. The friction is evident as his wife avoids his phone call. As these family situations are set up, you just know that they will certainly come into play later as a cathartic moment. It is something to be embraced and not loathed.
The day starts innocently enough with railroad employees messing around. Dewey (Ethan Suplee) though is careless and doesn’t put the brakes on one of the trains. He tries to board the train, but fails in his attempt. This thus starts the pursuit of an unmanned freight train.
Train dispatcher Connie Hopper (Rosario Dawson) attempts to come up with ways to stop the train. Her boss Galvin (Kevin Dunn) fights with her at different intervals of the day. It makes for a good back and forth. In this uneasy work climate, it sure is fun to root against Galvin and his boss who are only concerned with the bottom line.
Scott (“Top Gun”, “Enemy of the State”) has mostly dabbled in action films throughout his career. He definitely knows what he is doing. Unfortunately sometimes Scott tries to show off with his camera techniques. It definitely hurt him on “Man on Fire”, where his frantic shots were nauseating to watch and endure. This took away from a decent movie that deserved better. In “Unstoppable”, Scott has thankfully dialed back his impulses. His action shots are clean and clear. You can see what is going on and don’t have to bring a barf bag to the theater.
“Unstoppable” was written by Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard”). It was inspired by an actual event that took place in Ohio in 2001, where they stopped a runaway train carrying hazardous materials. Bomback has retained the hazardous materials angle and moved the action to Pennsylvania. Even though the movie is supposed to be set in Pennsylvania, Scott still used Ohio in some key scenes.
Pine and Washington have a nice rapport on the screen. As the day gets more stressful, you can believe that Barnes and Colson are bonding together. Some of the better scenes are actually when the two are trading stories about their families. It humanizes the two characters and you care whether they live or not.
As the runaway train barrels toward a heavily populated city, different attempts are made to stop the train with disastrous results. It is up to Barnes and Colson with their train to stop it. Scott may have gone a tad overboard with his overheard shots of the trains, but it does give you a good idea of where the trains are at any given time.
“Unstoppable” is an exciting and tense action thriller buoyed by the two strong lead performances and the deft directing touches of Tony Scott.