Unstoppable (2010)
Tony Scott's train ride
5 December 2010
Say what you want about Tony Scott and the overall quality of his body of work, but at least he's reliable when it comes to delivering spectacular action and good thrills, not to mention a fun performance from Denzel Washington, for whom Unstoppable is the fifth collaboration with the director. Sometimes, however, the basic ingredients aren't quite enough, as seen in Scott's previous film, the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, whose train-based scenario is reworked in this new movie, which is partly based on a true story.

The title might sound like a sci-fi story (that's what I believed when I first heard it, having no prior knowledge of the film's content), but it's actually about a speeding train that, unmanned and packed with lethal chemical products, could cause major damage throughout the populated areas nearby. The man upstairs (Kevin Dunn) is more concerned about financial consequences than human lives, and so it's up to an unlikely pair of heroes to try and stop the train: Frank Barnes (Washington), an engineer who thinks he doesn't have much to lose anyway, and Will Colson (Chris Pine), a young conductor with marital problems. Their only ally is yardmaster Connie Hooper, who provides updates and advice via radio frequencies.

It all sounds very good, and yet the feeling remains that something went wrong along the way, starting with the material itself: despite the "true story" tag, the plot feels hollow and riddled with stereotypes, be it the incompetent boss or the "old vs. young" debate that stems from the team-up of Frank and Will. There's also a huge plausibility issue: sure, having live news coverage of the events is a valid storytelling device in terms of narrative vantage points, but who would actually send a news helicopter within 300 feet of something that is likely to blow up? Even by Hollywood standards, that's too much to ask for in the suspension of disbelief department.

On the positive side, Washington is as charismatic as ever, Pine does a good down-to-earth version of his Captain Kirk, and Dawson gives valid support. The real triumph, though, is entirely behind the camera: an assured professional, Scott directs with passion an energy, infusing the key scenes with a vibrancy that, paired with his technical collaborators (most notably editor Chris Lebenzon and composer Harry Gregson-Williams), ensures that, when it's good, Unstoppable is quite a fun ride. Sadly, that doesn't occur all too often, and by the time the race comes to an end the picture has run out of steam as well. Perhaps the material was just too "normal" by the director's standards: where's a cartoonish villain when you need one?
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