Tailor made to director Tony Scott’s aggressive and intense filmmaking sensibilities, his ferocious last action thriller Unstoppable is a wildly entertaining throwback to the mid-to-late-90’s “high-concept” actioner genre that he helped pioneer. Sort of like Speed but refreshingly constructed without a mad-man terrorist character, the film is inspired by true events and doesn’t suffer in the slightest when it comes to a non-existent mega-villain – the runaway train at the center of the film is plenty mean and nasty. Scott, working for the fifth time with Denzel Washington and for the first time with Chris Pine, got two meaty, manly performances from his charismatic leads, and as usual, peppered his film with a terrific supporting cast (Rosario Dawson, Kevin Dunn, Ethan Suplee, Kevin Corrigan [love this guy!], T.J. Miller, scene-stealer Lew Temple, and David Warshofsky all pop up in key roles). Mark Bomback’s lean, fast-moving screenplay injects nice character beats all throughout the propulsive narrative as opposed to front-loading the first act with nothing but background and exposition. We get to learn about the characters as the movie progresses ala a 70’s film, while Bomback and Scott pile on the near-death encounters that Washington and Pine have to contend with. There’s also a quiet little streak of working-class anger running throughout Unstoppable when it comes to the way mega-corporations care more about their bottom line than the lives and well-being of their employees; the subversive subtext is there no matter how much it’s overshadowed by explosions and flipping-cars.
Based on an event that occurred in 2001 where an unmanned train carrying highly-toxic chemicals careened through the Ohio countryside at speeds of up to 50 mph, Unstoppable ups the ante considerably (now a heavily populated city is in jeopardy and the train is chugging along at close to 70 mph) but still stays true to the events that inspired it. Due to simple human error, one segment of a train dislodges from the main portion, and with the gears in forward motion, takes off down the track. Most people won’t know much about trains going into this film (I certainly didn’t) but by the end, you’ll likely have a better understanding of how they work and just how dangerous they really are. Credit goes to Washington and Pine for never over-stating the obvious. They are playing classic men of action who rise to the occasion when they are most needed (a theme running all throughout Scott’s body of work) and they never went over the top with their performances. Pine has a great way of never seeming overly pushy as an actor, possessing a natural quality which makes it seem like he’s being himself at all times. Washington is completely at ease under Scott’s direction and did a nice variation on the same character that he’s been perfecting for the last 15 years. There’s nothing complicated about Unstoppable – how will these train operators (one a veteran, one a rookie) stop the runaway bomb-on-wheels and save the day?
There’s a certain element of predictable eventuality to Unstoppable – it seems inconceivable to think that the train will really crash and eviscerate close to a million innocent people. So without spoiling anything (and there are more than a few surprises in Bomback’s fast-moving script), I’ll say that Scott keeps you invested the entire time, not only by destroying any number of objects that get in the train’s way as it charges towards its destination, but by staying focused on the brass-tacks of the story and never succumbing to cheap humor or stupid side distractions. So it’s no real secret to reveal that the real star of Unstoppable, beyond the train itself, is Scott the auteur. No other filmmaker, to my recollection, has transported their audience directly on a train in the way that Scott does in Unstoppable. Every single shot in the film looks real – viciously, dangerously real. At no time do you feel like you’re watching actors on a set or in front of a green screen, which goes a long way in making the entire movie feel vital and alive. The aerial photography is stunning, with numerous shots of the hard-charging train going neck and neck with helicopters and pick-up trucks that are trying to stop it. Scott, along with the gifted cinematographer Ben Serensin, always managed to keep all of the action coherent and spatially understandable in Unstoppable, without ever sacrificing anything in the style department. They’re aided immensely by Scott’s long-time, go-to editor Chris Lebenzon and his partner Robert Duffy. All of Scott’s kinetic shooting and editing tricks (jump-cuts, rich color palette, on-screen titles, staccato editing patterns) are sampled during Unstoppable, so as a result, some people might get motion sickness, as the camera never stops swirling, never takes a breather, and is always on high alert. It’s visceral filmmaking of the highest order and a further reminder that Scott was the best in the business when it came to this sort of stuff. It’s indescribable how much I miss him as an artist.