Unstoppable

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Just when you thought Tony Scott has lost his penchant for making actioners that are coherent, accessible and devoid of excessive (and defeating) stylistic flourishes, along comes “Unstoppable,” a high-concept picture that’s quite entertaining.

As the title indicates, the plot is ultra-simplistic. To be sure, the premise in not new: There have been other movies based on the same (or similar) narrative structure. You may recall Konchalovsky’s “Runaway Train,” in 1985, in which a vet criminal and his young accomplice (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts) hide out on a train that’s rapidly barreling through Alaska without an engineer.
 
That said, “Unstoppable” is not only an updated version of those movies, but one that takes full advantage of state of the art technology, relying much less than other genre pictures on CGI effects.  What’s also new thematically is the display of the monstrous train on national TV, with media coverage around the clock of the efforts to stop it.  A shrewd piece of filmmaking, “Unstoppable” literally places the viewers inside a train ride that's as scary as it is thrilling. (The movie is a vivid demonstration of the expression, let's take the audience for a ride," in more ways than one).
 
The pacing, which is breakneck to begin with, increases as the story unfolds.  If at the start we are at 40 miles an hour, toward the end, the speed is way up and relentlessly so. Overall, "Unstoppable" is the fastest 98-minute-adventure you are likely to experience in a movie theater this season.
 
Having appeared in five of his movies (including “Crimson Tide,” “Man on Fire,” and most recently in another train flick, “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” Denzel Washington is clearly Tony Scott’s favorable actor. Though “Unstoppable” does not call for deep or high-caliber acting, Washington boasts a solid, charismatic presence, which helps ground the tale in a more recognizably realistic setting than it has the right to be.
 
In this movie, Washington is paired with a younger, handsome, up-and-coming star, Chris Pine, which guarantees that younger spectators (and female teenagers) will be seeing the movie. As far as male screen couples go, Washington and Pine establish a nice rapport, each exhibiting different kinds of attributes and yet sharing enough common ground to convince us that as a team they can save the day.
 
Under pressure, and running out of time, Washington’s vet train engineer Frank and Pine’s young conductor Will have to overcome their own incongruities in order to prevent an unmanned runaway train, which is loaded with chemicals, from causing a disaster in a densely populated region. The explosive in question is a huge missile the size of a skyscraper.
  
When the story begins, on the morning of October 12, life at Fuller Yard in WilkinsPennsylvania, seems just like any other routine day. There is the usual change of shifts, the waking up with the same cup of coffee.  Then over breakfast, two hostlers are asked to move 777, one of the newest trains on the line to a different track. 
 
Sounds like an easy task?  Look again.  The impetus for the plot occurs, when one of them makes the ill-fated decision of taking a short cut, hoping to get the job done faster.  Looming in the background is another event: Fuller Yard is about to host a field trip of 150 elementary school kids from Olean, New York.
 
Faster does not necessarily mean safer. The new locomotive, which is outfitted with the most modern computerized bells and whistles, is carrying no less than 39 cars, half a dozen of which are loaded with hazardous stuff.  Which means the whole train can quickly transform into a monstrous coaster.
 
Cut to Mingo Yard in Brewster, 200 miles away, where another work day begins–also routinely. Before heading off on their runs, the old guard of railroaders shares one more cup of coffee while doing paperwork. As they trade war stories of poor performances by rookie conductors, Frank Barnes (Washington) finds out that his conductor, Will Colson, is a new political hire. Though dissatisfied, Frank keeps his opinions and feelings to himself—but not for too long. Once aboard the 1206, a tough older 6-axel engine, Frank, the ultimate pro, makes it clear that his 28 years of service will trump Will’s 4 months on the job.
 
Despite some aggravations, which are initially dismissed as minor, no one at either yard suspects that a quiet afternoon could (and would) soon turn into a terrorizing ordeal of mass proportions, one that would cause alarma and be depicted in graphic detail on national TV. 
 
But it’s also the kind of urgent situation, which brings out the best of every employee–except, of course, the corrupt and decadent corporate elite, which owns the trains and is more concerned with money than safety. 
 
Thus, the main narrative depicts how the crisis puts to test the mettle of two everyday men, and in the process transforms them–almost despite themselves–from ordinary folks into extraordinary heroes.  Predictably, the two characters begin as opposites: Fran is black, working class, middle-aged, and widower (his wife had died of leukemia) with two beautiful daughters, both of whom work as waitresses at Hooters (which offers one of the film’s good jokes). Washington, a normally handsome star, goes out of his way to deglamorize his appearance, sporting glasses, shaving his head, and assuming the walk and posture of a middle-aged man.
 
In contrast, Will is young, white, handsome, middle-class, married with children, though unable to see his kids (due to a court ruling). The tale explores the huge gulf that initially prevails between the two men, encompassing age, socio-economic status, politics, and most important of all, professional experience and attitude. They represent the new demographics of American society: In the course of the film, we learned that Frank had been laid off and has only a few weeks to go, while Will, the inexperienced greener, benefits from his privileged social standing and political connections.
 
The point of the story is to get this duo closer to each other by learning new roles, attitudes, and responsibilities. Isolated in a single locomotive and under pressure, Frank and Will get to know each other, exchange stories about their private and domestic lives, and establish intimate camaraderie that not only helps them grow and mature as men but also serves the larger collective goal. It’s a tribute to the writing that all this is done in a rather smooth way and with a healthy dosage of humor, which is crucial since most of the narrative unfolds as a nail-biting thriller, with the clock ticking fast.
 
Though Scott usually doesn’t write his scenarios, there are some unifying themes and consistent characters that run through his growing body of work. In many of his pictures, the protagonists are ordinary (often working class) men who are placed in extreme crisis situations, which force them to discover previously untapped strength and courage, turning them into extraordinary individuals.
 
To accomplish their mission, Frank and Will rely on information dispensed over the radio by Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), who represents a voice of reason throughout the chaos.  Stationed back at Mingo Yard, where the runaway locomotive began as a simple coaster, Connie stands in for a different face of the railroad, a woman who could become part of the executive elite because of her sharp intelligence and decision-making skills. Dawson plays with charm and assurance a femme who’s assertive without being arrogant or bitchy, knowing well what it takes to be operating in a traditionally male role; the train yard is almost exclusively a man’s world.
 
It’s been a while since Scott has been able to demonstrate his penchant for blending effectively fast-moving action set-pieces, sharp characterization, engaging melodrama with some feelings—and even humor.  “Unstoppable,” arguably Scott’s most accomplished and satisfying film in a decade or so, achieves all of the above, delivering the kind of polished fare that only Hollywood is capable of producing so well.