Ever since Man on Fire, Tony Scott has shown little regard for his audience’s senses. He assaults them on a regular basis by throwing out every abrasive edit possible. My personal favorite was when he decided to change fonts on the subtitles while a character was reciting a phone number. Clearly, that moment needed an extra emotional punch. After taking the same kind of approach with Domino, Deja Vu, and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, I held out little hope for his latest film, Unstoppable. However, I must bestow upon him higher praise than I ever thought I would: Unstoppable is surprisingly tolerable. It’s not a smart movie, or even a particularly exciting one, but it at least doesn’t over-saturate every color and will hold a shot for more than half-a-second. Throw in strong chemistry between leads Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, and you have a film that is better than it should be, especially when that film is by Tony Scott.
Train 777 is on a runaway course and is carrying tons of dangerous chemicals. If no one stops it, the train will eventually derail, most likely in a populated area, and lots of people will die. Because the train company’s countermeasures are useless, veteran train operator Frank (Washington) and rookie conductor Will (Pine) are the only people who have a chance of stopping it. Unstoppable is a suspense film with only one bullet in its gun. The train has to keep moving or else there’s no more crisis. Speed made the smart decision of having the non-stop bus as only the meat of the movie, but surrounding it with the elevator situation at the beginning of the movie and the chase on the subway at the end. Unstoppable is all train, all the time and you know the train can’t be stopped and can’t do significant damage until the finale. At one point, there’s another train on the track full of innocent schoolchildren, but you just shrug. In a PG-13 major motion picture, most moviegoers aren’t going to be thinking, “Yeah, the film might become the non-stop thrill-ride version of The Sweet Hereafter.”
In an odd way, Tony Scott is the perfect director for the material because he needs every editing trick he has to keep the proceedings exciting. Unfortunately, he picked an odd time to show some restraint. As someone who finds his films headache-inducing, that’s welcome, but as someone who likes exciting movies, it’s a bit of a let-down. The train is stuck on a track, the stakes can never change, and we know that it’s all going to come down to our protagonists saving the day so prior attempts to stop the train are just weak attempts at set pieces.
Thankfully, Pine and Washington are great together. While their small-talk conversations are awkwardly shoehorned into the pacing of the film, the actors play off each other wonderfully. It’s not that the dialogue or the writing of the characters is particularly strong. Washington and Pine just have an intangible quality that makes their scenes work well. Their performances almost make you forget the film’s message that even though both characters are on the outs with their respective families, nothing heals fractured relationships like heroism. Remember: if your wife or kids hate you, the best way to get back on their good side is to stop a runaway train.
If Unstoppable didn’t star Pine and Washington, you’d wonder why it was being release theatrically. It feels like a cable-TV movie-of-the-week with a slightly inflated budget. The strong chemistry between the lead actors elevates the material, and Tony Scott’s thankfully backs off his abrasive over-stylization, but he could have stood to add a little flair as the story chugs along to its inevitable destination.