Check up on the details of “Unstoppable” and you’ll see a strange trend: In two consecutive years, director Tony Scott has released two train-based Denzel Washington thrillers, the first being “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” last June.
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20th Century Fox
Both films place Washington in the role of a cynical old-timer wronged by “the Man” and the only one with the power to save the day — a personality that, through films like “Inside Man” and “American Gangster,” he has come to inherit quite comfortably. In these two recent films, Scott has placed him in contrast with another leading male; in “Pelham” it was John Travolta’s turn as a hijacking terrorist and in “Unstoppable” it’s Chris Pine (“Star Trek”) as a proud young train operator with family issues and a heart of gold.
Dual star power is always a lucrative way to generate mass appeal, and “Unstoppable” cashes in on it by offering valuable interplay between two actors who have a somewhat unlikely but still largely successful chemistry. Washington plays Frank, assigned to engineer on a cargo train, while Pine is Will, the newcomer tagging along; the obvious young-old setup never completely pays off, but it’s the heart of what minor conflicts the two undergo.
The men become aspiring heroes when, by an operator’s mistake, a train leaves a southern Pennsylvania station unmanned at full power. The train threatens to derail in a heavily populated area if it maintains its speed; our heroes decide to chase the train down and attempt to bring it under control.
Once the train is off and running, the film moves at breakneck pace with lively editing and handheld camera adding to the chaos. Tony Scott, like older brother Ridley, has auteurist visual style. That said, he forgoes the crowded, flashy direction of his earlier films “Domino” and “Man on Fire” for a more grounded but still distinctive tone.
“Unstoppable” is stripped down and presented almost entirely in real-time. The runaway train is a formidable villain, and its mysterious, almost mystical quality is one of the film’s strongest points. Carrying large amounts of toxic chemicals, it is never fully explained how serious its damage would be, but the realistic in-the-moment presentation is thrilling.
The ensemble cast, which includes Rosario Dawson (“Seven Pounds”) as the train yard leader and Ethan Suplee (TV’s “My Name is Earl”) as the mistake-prone operator and the catalytic screw-up, fits the film well but still offers little in the way of developed, dynamic characters. By the momentary nature of the film, the script sacrifices character development to keep the story moving, and even its main characters suffer from a lack of background.
We learn early on that Will and his wife aren’t speaking; later we learn that it came as a result of a misunderstanding and altercation involving another man. We never learn more about what drives him. We don’t know why he is the way he is.
The script is slow to start — perhaps intentionally — and it weighs down Scott’s direction until the action picks up. The act structure is off-balance, and despite the intense production, the climax doesn’t fully satisfy.
Narratively, “Unstoppable” strives for realism by presenting its crisis from every different angle and centering itself on working-class-hero protagonists. However, by never tying off its loose ends and organizing its plot, it falls short of leaving a lasting effect.