Denzel Washington teams up with director Tony Scott yet again, and for the second year in a row a suspense thriller about trains. In Unstoppable, one momentary lapse of judgment leads to an incredibly dangerous situation: a runaway, explosive-filled train traveling 70 miles per hour towards a densely populated city.
If you're sick of the Denzel/Tony Scott duo, you're not alone. While some of their collaborations have been great - Man on Fire and Déjà vu come to mind - Scott's directorial style has veered into the distracting in recent years. Washington is entertaining as always, but Scott always asks the same of the Oscar winner: be larger-than-life and chew up the scenery while you're at it.
Unstoppable is an entertaining but frustrating mixture of everything that is good and bad about the pairing. Unstoppable is simple, both in plot and delivery. Scott doesn't go overboard with the visuals, a refreshing change from his obnoxious trajectory of late. One of my biggest complaints about The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 was that Scott was more concerned about having flashy shots and edits than simply telling a suspenseful story; with Unstoppable, he really pulled back on his unwavering creativity and the result pays off. The movie is a straight-laced action movie for the most part, one that builds up steam as it chugs along. The climax, even though it's predictable (you don't think the people will fail, do you?), is exciting, and with Unstoppable, it's all about the climax.
The combination of old and new pays off, too. Washington is perfectly good in his respective role, playing quintessential Denzel (I dare you to play a character completely unlike anyone you've played in the last ten years!) but with the scene chewing kept to the minimum. He's joined by rising star Chris Pine, who acts a lot like Captain Kirk on a train. Still, he's a fun and energetic actor, one deserving of the riches currently being funneled in his general direction, and has good chemistry with Washington.
As entertaining as Unstoppable is, and it is entertaining (in a popcorn chomping, soda slurping kind of way), it could have been a lot better. It is, after all, sort of stupid. The best comparison is actually United 93, the before-its-time but excellent thriller directed by Bourne helmer Paul Greengrass, about the September 11 events. United 93 not only took us into the action on the airplane but detailed the tense and complicated logistics managed by the people who could only watch the disaster unfold from a distance. Unstoppable isn't too different, but it only gets things half right. The train sequences with Washington and Pine are spot on. The rest of the movie, which focuses on Rosario Dawson and her attempts to coordinate things between the police, staff and corporate leaders, is a letdown.
Dawson is fine, but it's clear this whole other chunk of the movie was added as filler. Had screenwriter Mark Bomback actually applied some intelligence to these off-the-train scenes, Unstoppable would have been ten times better. The scenes just feel useless, other than as a vehicle to establish an unnecessary human bad guy: the corporate boss. He hangs up on Dawson. Plans are set in motion without her knowing about it - and without the audience getting to experience the urgency of preparing said plan. The coordination of police, public, press, staff and everyone else could have led to some amazingly fast-paced and tense scenes, but instead details are glossed over, plot holes exposed. The press seems to know what's happening before the company does, which really doesn't make any sense, and that's just one of many flaws with the picture.
Even though the direction is more subdued, Tony Scott still manages to make certain things distracting. He knows how to make action movies and is responsible for some serious classics over the last thirty years, but his style continues to bug me. Some people won't notice, but Scott utilizes helicopters to an annoying degree in Unstoppable. In every sequence helicopters are swooping down alongside the train, cutting across takes and nearly doing tricks, which not only is absurdly obnoxious but simply absurd. Helicopters wouldn't "behave" like this in real life, so why add them in other than for the reason the production has paid money to rent helicopters? In one brief but obvious scene, Scott decides to show footage of a camera panning along the side of the train from the perspective of a news helicopter, even though it was clearly intended to be regular movie footage; a news helicopter would never get that close. This may sound like nitpicking, but it's these little things that gnaw away at the overall production.
Unstoppable is a fun movie that gets better as it goes along, but it has enough plot holes and distractions to keep it from being something better. And it could have been a lot better had a little more attention been given to the scenes where a train isn't barreling along at 70 miles per hour (in the real-life incident this film was based on, it reportedly reached a maximum of 30 mph). With a severe lack of other good movies at multiplexes, Unstoppable is worth seeing, but under ordinary circumstances it would make for a good rental, nothing more.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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