Film Review: Unstoppable

Solid but unexceptional high-concept action programmer from Tony Scott, who has delivered bigger thrills in previous pictures.

Unlike his older brother Ridley, who has made a point of exploring different genres throughout his career from science-fiction to historical epics to con-artist capers, Tony Scott has happily opted to specialize in making one kind of picture: slick, violent, male-dominated action movies. From his 1986 sophomore effort Top Gun to last year’s Taking of Pelham 123 remake, that approach has served him well commercially and, at times, artistically too. (It’s no coincidence that his one attempt to radically shake up his tried-and-true formula—the 2005 bounty hunter saga Domino—was also his biggest creative and commercial flop.) Sure, his films will never be confused with High Art, but they do display a distinct and consistent directorial vision. In that way, Scott is as much of an auteurist as such art-house darlings as Terrence Malick, Claire Denis and Pedro Costa.
Everyone has their own opinion as to which entry in his canon is the definitive example of A Tony Scott Film; 1991’s The Last Boy Scout is a popular choice, as is 1993’s True Romance. But for me at least, Scott’s single best work remains Crimson Tide, the crackerjack 1995 thriller that pitted Gene Hackman against Denzel Washington as dueling commanders of a nuclear-armed submarine that’s been deployed to guard the U.S. against a possible attack by hostile Russian forces.

The director must have a soft spot for that film as well, since his latest movie, Unstoppable, at times resembles a loose remake of Crimson Tide, albeit one that involves land vehicles—specifically freight trains—rather than aquatic submersibles. The connection to Tide is driven home by the presence of Washington (re-teaming with Scott for the third time in a row), who takes over the Hackman role of the experienced veteran, here named Frank Barnes, who butts heads with a fresh-out-of-training newbie, Will Colson, played by Star Trek’s Chris Pine.

Employees for a major Pennsylvania railroad company, they’ve been partnered together for the day to perform some routine track work, but don’t exactly hit it off. Frank is bothered by his partner’s distractedness, which results in too many easy mistakes, while Will bristles at the older man’s seemingly contemptuous attitude toward his abilities. But they’re forced to put their differences aside and figure out a way to work together when they learn that an unmanned freight train packed with highly dangerous explosives is barreling down the tracks, bound for a major population center. While higher-ups like dedicated yardmaster Connie (Rosario Dawson), quiet safety inspector Werner (Kevin Corrigan) and arrogant white-collar corporate type Galvin (Kevin Dunn, playing the closest thing to a flesh-and-blood villain in the movie) work behind-the-scenes, shouting encouragement and dire warnings into the radio, Frank and Will put their lives on the line to avert a disaster of epic proportions.

Unstoppable’s best attributes are its brevity—it clocks in at a swift 99 minutes with little first-act exposition—and bombastic set-pieces, filmed in Scott’s typically hyperbolic style. Like an overeager toddler let loose upon a toy train set, the director takes great delight in slamming cars together and crashing through any and all obstacles in his path. As usual, he prizes energy over coherence; the constantly swirling camera and rapid-fire cutting make it difficult to follow exactly what’s going on, but the overall momentum of the movie keeps you involved. (Scott also regularly reminds the audience what’s going on via TV news reports and various characters recapping the action. Frankly, it becomes a little annoying after a while.)

What the film is missing, though, is the strong dynamic between its leading men that powered Crimson Tide and, to a lesser extent, Pelham. While Pine and Washington share an amiable chemistry (and the younger actor burnishes his post-Trek credentials as a compelling new screen hero), there’s no charge to their onscreen relationship. They don’t necessarily have to spend the entire movie at each other’s throats, but their personal drama should enhance the action. Without that boost, Unstoppable never gets out of first gear, delivering lots of sound, speed and fury but only a modest amount of excitement.