The title "Unstoppable" is wholly unsuitable for Tony Scott's new film. It would have been more forthcoming to call the movie “Predictable” or “Unbelievable,” even “Avoidable.” The fifth thriller pairing Denzel Washington and Mr. Scott, "Unstoppable" is quick to leave the station, uneven and jolting in its middle act, and hastily curtailed around the 90-minute mark. It is almost a shame, though, as "Unstoppable" contains all of the elements of an explosive ride, but in the end can hardly elevate a heartbeat.
The film is inspired by the true events surrounding a runaway train in Ohio from 2001, dubbed the “Crazy Eights Incident.” The story is a combination of human error coupled with machine malfunctions that cause an unmanned train to begin hurling down the mainline early one morning in Pennsylvania. Mr. Washington stars as the grizzled railroad veteran Frank, with Chris Pine (“Star Trek,” “Smokin’ Aces”) at his side as a rookie engineer named Will. Both undertake the daring and dangerous task of stopping the runaway train when all else fails and against the protestations of their corporate handlers. Rosario Dawson (“Seven Pounds,” “Sin City”) rounds out the trio of actors keeping this film loosely on track as the operator of the rail yard where the runaway train originates.
The acting in "Unstoppable" is one of the film’s best attributes: Mr. Washington and Mr. Pine have an engaging, combative chemistry as tough working men trying to connect across a generational gap. (Recessionary ethos spill into this pre-recession story’s early scenes of confrontation between the young engineer and older rail workers being forced into early retirement). Mr. Washington's character differs greatly from the action heroes of his past collaborations with Mr. Scott. As always, Mr. Washington shines, this time as an unassuming, aging, and wise railwayman in a role more similar to the lackluster civil servant he plays in “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” (2009) than the vengeful former assassin of “Man on Fire” (2004). Dawson performs well as a hardheaded boss, though often her character feels like an afterthought, a forced female presence in this world of men and machines.
▲ Credit: 20th Century Fox
Unfortunately, the film does great disservice to its cast by providing them with a threadbare narrative and by emphasizing Scott’s distinctive visual style over the talents of its actors. The characters’ back-stories are murky and shallow, offering paltry motivation for their acts of selfless heroism. Plot development is uneven as the first half of the film constantly lurches back and forth between placid scenes of Frank and Will traversing the countryside and hectic scenes at the railway office of Connie and her staff scrambling to devise a solution to the runaway train situation. Scott must be given credit for tackling the less than enthralling material of this story, for a quality thriller without blazing small arms or National Security issues is a rarity since Hitchcock passed, but his ambition outstrips his script. Maintaining the fast-pace and high tension that characterizes the movie from the opening credits would be a nigh impossible feat for even the master of the genre.
That being said, the highly stylized visuals that Scott employs to create this frenetic tempo are the most compelling aspect of the film. In "Unstoppable," Scott continues the aesthetic experimentation that he began in films like “Domino” (2005) and “Deja Vu” (2006). His work of the past half-decade has been filled with rapid-fire cross-cutting and high contrast, often tinted or grainy, images. "Unstoppable" with its autumnal, New England setting offers the perfect palette for Scott to refine his unique visual approach even further. Scenes of the flaming red train tearing through the fall landscape are sheer aesthetic pleasure, but pleasure to the detriment of character development. Indeed, Scott's emphatic, almost anthropomorphizing focus on the train itself steals valuable face time from the actors and exacerbates the weak characterization of the story's protagonists.
"Unstoppable" needed a solid half-hour more on the front end to develop its characters, to delve into the lives of these railwaymen, for heroism without a motivation or context is little more than quickly forgotten fodder for the six o'clock news.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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