Let The Solute’s love affair with train-related movies continue as I profess that Tony Scott’s Unstoppable is a sleek, well-paced, and highly enjoyable action movie.
The story is pulled from the real life incident of CSX 8888, a runaway freight train in 2001, and while Scott amplifies the threat and jazzes the narrative up a little, some of the movie’s most unbelievable instances are drawn straight from the truth. Which is to say that, yes, a bunch of police officers did indeed fire at a speeding train full of dangerous chemicals in the hopes that a bullet would hit the emergency fuel shut-off switch. Shockingly, this strategy didn’t pay off.
What does pay off, at least in the film, is a combination of guts and professionalism. The victory mostly comes down to Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), an engineer and a slightly grizzled railroad veteran, and Will Colson (Chris Pine), a relatively new hire with some secrets that are darker than the film can adequately handle. But this is an ensemble movie more than a buddy piece–on the spectrum of action thrillers, it’s a disaster movie, with a single organizing incident bringing a bunch of characters together. Rosario Dawson, in particular, does good work as yardmaster Connie Hooper, whose practicality and principles put her at odds with the railroad’s upper management, who want to prioritize money and image, in that order. Lew Temple also brings a shaggy charisma to bear as puckish welder Ned Temple, who drops in and out of the story like he’s visiting it from a slightly weirder realm.
Scott does some top-notch action choreography as people try to slow and/or derail the train, with an especially great sequence that involves Will trying to hitch two speeding trains together while being pelted with vision-obscuring grain from a blown storage car: the chaos and danger and stakes are all excruciatingly clear, and the film makes the most of the incredible visuals the situation provides. Looking for a still to put at the top of this article, I realized how kinetic this movie really is. None of the still images seem to adequately capture the raw appeal here–which is appropriate, for a movie about seemingly unstoppable motion.
While this isn’t really an action-comedy–the setup is too grounded for gags–there’s some good whistling-past-the-graveyard humor, especially from Frank. (Washington’s best scene is one where he channels all his movie star magnetism into expressing Frank’s rueful resignation as much as his heroism.) In fact, the only thing here that conclusively does not work is the back story given to Pine’s character re: his separation from his wife. It’s too specific and too disturbing to then be treated as a generic “movie marriage in trouble” subplot. Luckily, this bit is largely self-contained, and there’s plenty of movie to enjoy outside of it.
In conclusion, as always, I demand more train movies.