Let’s face it: sometimes a big, fat generic Hollywood blockbuster is exactly what you hanker for.
A good one can taste great and be less filling…and that’s certainly the case with with the high energy, extremely entertaining Unstoppable (2010), a Tony Scott thriller starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pine and Rosario Dawson.
“Inspired by true events” that occurred in Ohio in 2001, Unstoppable is the harrowing, fast-moving tale of two very different men and one woman as they attempt to avert disaster and stop a runaway train in industrial Pennsylvania.
Now, that sounds like an extraordinarily simple plotline — and it is — but as always, the devil is in the details.
The runaway train, AWVR 777 no mere “coaster.” Rather, she’s traveling at 77 miles an hour through heavily populated towns and transporting 30,000 gallons of a toxic, flammable chemical called Molten Phenol.
As the film’s put-upon train yard boss, Connie (Dawson) aptly notes, AWVR 777 is not merely a train, but a “missile the size of the Chrysler Building” racing towards 752,000 innocent people in downtown Stanton.
How did the train get out of control in the first place?
Well, through a combination of “human error and bad luck,” according to Connie, but she’s just being gracious. The real culprit is Ethan Suplee’s character, the dimwitted, under-trained Dewey, He’s a slack yard worker who absent-mindedly leaves the train-in-question on full throttle and unforgivably forgets to activate the air brakes before jumping off.
Now his mistake could decimate the sleepy little town of Stanton and cost innumerable lives.
Reckoning with the runaway train on the front line are two unlikely blue-collar heroes: 28-year train company veteran and soon-to-be forcibly retired Frank Barnes (Washington) and wet behind the ears rookie, James T. Kirk…er, Will Colson (Chris Pine).
Each of these guys is carrying abundant personal baggage.
Barnes’ wife died of cancer and he is estranged from his two daughters, who work at Hooters. Colson is from a well-known local family but has a chip on his shoulder the size of a locomotive. He’s also estranged from his wife and child over an incident in which he pulled a gun on a police officer.
Unstoppable moves at a relentless, driving pace as Will and Barnes become the last two people on “the main line” capable of stopping AWVR 777. Efforts to slow down the runaway train with another train fail...explosively. A daring attempt to land a U.S. Marine on the back of the speeding train ends…with catstrophic injury. And the dangerous strategy to derail AWVR 777 with “portable de-railers” just short of a hairpin curve near Stanton proves absolutely futile. It seems nothing can stop this rolling goliath.
As the train speeds irrevocably towards its rendezvous with certain disaster, death and destruction are at every turn. Early on, a train carrying 150 school kids on a field trip celebrating “railroad safety” (!) assumes a collision course with 777. Later, a horse trailer (with frightened horses inside) stops on railroad tracks as the runaway monster bears down on it.
Soon, the nature of the threat becomes widely-known. Press helicopters circle AWVR 777 like buzzards; and eventually the heartless train company gets involved too, just in time to really muck things up. An executive in charge gets the bad news out on the golf course, and his first instinct is to check the company’s bottom line. “What’s the stock de-valuation?” he wonders, should absolute catastrophe ensue.
This less-than-flattering portrait of the white-collar bosses is part and parcel of the movie’s dramatic blue collar aesthetic. Scott shoots the entire movie in an over-saturated, colorful, and gritty palette, one wholly befitting its workaday characters. And the final conflict comes down to two guys who may not be saints but who know how to do their jobs versus over-paid buffoons and telephone jockeys who just want to keep their jobs and fortunes intact.
Like all movies, Unstoppable is a product of its time, which means that the subtext here is entirely Great Recession Populism. Good, hard-working joes like Barnes are being pushed into early retirement on “half benefits” to satisfy suit-and-tie executives hoping to reserve enough cash in big bonuses for white collar class. The message, none too subtle, is that the runaway train called the economy — the vehicle for wealth — is barreling out of control, and only the know how of Main Street, not Wall Street can right the course.
But Unstoppable succeeds well outside of it deliberate class warfare metaphors too. There’s a more simple, basic story here, one explicitly about human nature.
Human error causes the danger in the first place, and then the movie brilliantly charts the domino effect of each and every response to that initial error.
In the end, it’s human ingenity and resourcefulness — the opposite of Dewey’s human error — that resolves the crisis. I appreciated both aspects of the movie’s message; that we can control all of our “runaway trains,” either to our mutual detriment or to our collective glory. We just have to climb on, decide on a course, and say “all aboard…”
Director Tony Scott may not boast a reputation for subtlety, but here he certainly keeps all the trains running on time, to marshal an appropriate metaphor. His camera never hangs back or slows down. It spins, it races, it tracks, it arcs, it barrels, it circles…and the total effect is of a breathless, unstoppable juggernaut.
Because of Scott’s approach, this movie grabs your attention and imagination from the first moments and doesn’t let go until the end credits roll. I’m not the kind of film critic given to exhortations about movies being “adrenaline-packed thrill rides” or other hyperbolic nonsense. But those shoes fit the movie in this case. Unstoppable is one hell of a roller-coaster ride, and I recommend it entirely on that basis; as a better-than-expected, surprisingly efficient and entertaining action picture.
Frank Barnes – Denzel’s character here — has only one rule for life on the railrod track: “If you do something, you better do it right
.” That’s an axiom Tony Scott and Unstoppable
really live by. Unstoppable
would make a hell of a double feature with another railrod classic: 1985’s Runaway Train
Next stop: heart attack territory…