Sunday, March 06, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Unstoppable (2010)

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., 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...


  1. Fine review for a film that was one of my favorite entertainment films for 2010. Yes, there's little to no subtlety to get in the way of loud, energetic diversion (but your citing of the white and blue collar tension is apt). Tony Scott sure surprised me with 2009's remake of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE, and in a good way. And his distinctive filmmaking traits are on full display here. Also, I really appreciated his use of sound editing in UNSTOPPABLE to establish a bit malevolence and dread whenever AWVR 777 was on screen. It all added to the enjoyment. Thanks, John.

  2. SteveW11:40 AM

    Sorry I missed this in theaters. With all the over-hyped junk out there, there's nothing like a good under-the-radar popcorn picture that takes you by surprise. Reminds me of "National Treasure" a few years ago--a well-made adventure that came out of nowhere to become a big hit.

  3. This sounds like a fun movie that I will have to check out. I can really take or leave Tony Scott. I thought his remake of PELHAM was dreadful but I have soft spot for the hyperactive DOMINO.

  4. Hi everybody,

    Le0pard13: I'm glad you enjoyed the film too. I feel very much the same way as you: this is great entertainment/diversion, if not great art. But sometimes, great entertainment fits the bill perfectly!

    SteveW: You said it perfectly. This is a good under-the-radar popcorn movie, and a thrilling one at that. Unstoppable is enormously successful as a big generic Hollywood movie.

    J.D. I have read a lot about Domino, but not seen it. Some people seem to love it, while others despise it. Do you think it's worth checking out?

    Thanks for all the great comments!


  5. Hey John/ all,
    Really late to the party on this one.

    I really LOVED Runawa Train. Is Unstoppable that good? Wow. Because I really loved Runaway Train. I said that twice I know, but that was a surprising film for me when I rented it on VHS way back in the day.

    I like some Tony Scott films. I don't like some. I didn't care for Domino at all. Hated it. I guess JD and I make your point John. You'll have to see it for yourself. : )

    I was so disappointed in it. Man On Fire, Enemy Of The State were good. But I know what y'all mean about Scott. He's not as good as his brother but he is all balls to the wall with the visual flair.

    Plus Chris Pine is like the new Matt Damon and I'm just not sold on him. I do like Denzel.

    All in all this one sounds up my alley for fun as you penned so eloquently in your appropriately fast-paced and exciting write-up and as Leopard13 put it.

    Take care.

  6. JKM,

    DOMINO... ah, it's almost like Tony Scott was trying to do his own version of NATURAL BORN KILLERS. For once, the overly hyperactive camerawork/editing works for me as Scott does a VERY loosely based biopic on the life of Domino Harvey, daughter of actor Laurence Harvey who was a model that went on to become a bounty hunter. I'm not a huge of Keira Knightley's but I thought she was fantastic and is supported by Mickey Rourke and Edgar Ramirez... Not to mention a gonzo cameo by Tom Waits and Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green (of BEVERLY HILLS 90210 fame) playing "themselves." Yeah, it's a weird stew of a film but I find it fascinating. Not many did. I would like to do a write-up on it on my blog some time in the future.

  7. Hello, my friends.

    SFF: No, Unstoppable is not as good as Runaway Train. At one point, back in around 1990, I guess, I was counting Runaway Train as one of the ten best movies I'd ever seen. Unstoppable just isn't in that class. But as a solid action film, it still rocks. Just don't expect transcendent greatness like Runaway Train!

    J.D. Between your comments and SFF's, I'm really intrigued about Domino. I know it is a divisive film. I need to check it out! But before that, I would love to read your write-up!!!

    best wishes,