Judge Steve Power is a runaway train, never going back. Wrong way on a one-way track.
Our review of Unstoppable (2004), published January 7th, 2005, is also available.
"This is Will Colson, the conductor, speaking; just to let you know, we're gonna run this bitch down."
Denzel Washington and Director Tony Scott (Days of Thunder) continue their long-standing working relationship with another blue-collar action spectacle. This time, instead of crooks and guns, hostage or revenge scenarios, we're given something a little new in the form of a good old-fashioned disaster thriller.
Facts of the Case
Frank (Denzel Washington, Man on Fire) is a 28-year veteran engineer, paired with Will (Chris Pine, Star Trek (2009)), a young conductor with four months of experience and a yellow safety vest. The pair gets off to a rocky start, and the day doesn't get any better. It turns out there's a 100-ton locomotive with a half a mile of cargo, including some mighty hazardous waste, barreling down the main line at speeds in excess of 70 miles per hour with no one at the helm. Can our two working class stiffs put aside their differences and become working class heroes? Can they do it in time to stop a missile the size of the Chrysler Building from nuking small town America?
Unstoppable is based just enough on actual events that it gets to wear the "inspired by a true story" tag. This should tell you just about all you need to know about the plot to formulate in your mind, a chain of events that begins with a train getting away, and ends with everybody saving the day, and some cute, tritely written text telling us the ultimately satisfying fates of the major players involved. Unstoppable doesn't play around much with the conventions, but it does use all of the prerequisite components rather well.
First of all, the movie is a slow builder, and we get enough time with the extensive cast of characters doing their day-to-day stuff so as to get attached. Sure, everyone is cut from the Hollywood book of everyman clichés, from Ethan Suplee's (Mallrats) lazy, accident prone slacker to Rosario Dawson's (Sin City) take charge, no nonsense yard boss, but it's OK, because these guys sell the roles so well. We know Denzel Washington will play a grizzled veteran before he comes on screen because, hey! Denzel Washington! And Chris Pine played a young Captain Kirk, so we know he's going to be a young, rookie hotshot with something to prove. It doesn't matter, because Denzel has been knocking these "beaten down working class" roles out of the park for the last few flicks, and Chris Pine has the charisma and the chops to carry his own weight. The script works well enough, setting the young buck up against the old mere, but it's Denzel and Pine that make it cool to watch.
Surprisingly enough, the use of CGI is kept to a bare minimum, and just about all of the stunt work you see, including the death-defying antics from Chris Pine towards the end of the film, are real and practical. It adds a nice sense of reality to Unstoppable, and truth be told, neither Tony, nor his older brother Sir Ridley for that matter, are particularly known for gigantic CG backdrops or computer generated characters when the action hits. Tony also usually employs all manner of camera trickery; including varying film stocks, and whiz bang filters, and Unstoppable is no exception. While not as visually erratic as some of Scott's other later efforts (Domino, I'm looking at you), there's definitely no mistaking his style here. Sweeping dolly shots, rapid cut inserts of speeding trains, and bleeding colors are the order of the day. It gives even the more mundane scenes a sense of energy and urgency. Much like his last effort, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, it's refreshing to see Scott's older, less erratic style in play, not that it means he's slowed any. If you prefer to not get an epic sweepthrough of people yelling into CB radios every time the scene changes, complete with Michael Bay spin-o-cam (TM and Copyright) you may be better off skipping this train altogether.
Unstoppable gets some worthy treatment on Blu-ray, the 1080p transfer captures the saturated colors of the film wonderfully. There's a nice natural level of grain present, and fine details are surprisingly effective. It's a great looking disc. The DTS Master track is incredibly formidable, and full of the roaring booms and the creak and moan of the lumbering trains. The surrounds light up constantly, and the subwoofer gets one hell of a workout. This is a pounder of a disc in the audio department.
Extras include a number of brief promotional featurettes that cover several aspects of the film's production. They're fluff pieces, sure, but there's some cool stuff here, most notably the stunt-centric material. Also included is a commentary track from director Tony Scott, which is, as usual, a worthwhile listen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there's one thing you can bet on when you tune in to your average blockbuster disaster-thriller, it's that we're going to have one corporate jackhole who exists solely to be a corporate jackhole. As if the runaway 100-ton train wasn't villain enough, we're given Oscar Galvin (Kevin Dunn, Transformers), who exists solely to undermine the efforts of our heroes at every turn. He's every bit as tired and cliché as every other character of this sort, every bit as unlikable, and every bit as stupid/ignorant. Of course he gets some manner of poetic come-uppence by the final moments of the film. There is one cool exchange between he and Denzel, where he basically threatens to fire anyone who tries to stop the train (huh? What?) He's no less clichéd than the rest of the characters, but he just feels tacked on and useless.
There are some who would say that Unstoppable is Tony Scott's best film in over a decade. While I don't particularly agree, it's still a more energetic and entertaining disasterpiece than anything that's come out of Bay or Emmerich in the last ten years. Denzel is still a better leading man than most, and Chris Pine proves he's not a one trick pony. It's a Tony Scott film, there are no surprises here, you know what to expect; but if you want to bet on a night of good, intense disaster fare that doesn't take itself too seriously or dial the "stupid" dial too high. Unstoppable is as good as money in the bank. It's sheer mindless entertainment from a director and a leading man who've become experts at it.
Guilty of being a Tony Scott film, take that for what it's worth.
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