Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Under Pressure: Tony Scott’s Unstoppable

Posted by CinemaPsycho on November 7, 2010


If I’ve learned anything from all my years of watching and reviewing films, it’s this simple fact: when a movie really works, you can’t argue with it.

Sure, you can try to be critical and negative just for the sake of it, but as far as I’m concerned, a critic isn’t doing his job if he doesn’t acknowledge when something’s just plain good. Such is the case with Unstoppable, the fifth collaboration between director Tony Scott and star Denzel Washington. It’s a film that I’m sure will be dismissed by many critics, most of whom won’t have seen it with an audience. Granted, this isn’t the kind of movie that will sweep the Oscars or wind up on most people’s Top 10 lists. It is, however, an absolute blast, an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser done with exceptional skill, and at a time when Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make those kind of movies, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

The plot is relatively simple, as it should be. Inspired by a true story (though no doubt liberties were taken), the film is basically about a runaway train loaded with explosive chemicals and the two railroad workers, Frank Barnes (Washington) and Will Coulson (Chris Pine) who try to stop it before it hits a populated area in rural Pennsylvania. They’re assisted by Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), possibly the hottest railroad employee ever, Ned (Lew Temple) a pickup-truck driving redneck, and Inspector Werner (Kevin Corrigan), a conveniently knowledgeable railroad inspector. The company executives don’t want their expensive train to be derailed, and they certainly don’t want the PR nightmare that comes with killing innocent people. They’ve got their own plan for stopping the train, but veteran Frank knows it’s not going to work, and is willing to risk his life to do it the right way. Needless to say, complications ensue.

That’s pretty much the whole movie, but of course it’s all about the execution. As in last year’s surprisingly fun Taking of Pelham 123 remake, Scott and Washington take a simple premise and turn it into gold, easily the best runaway-train movie since, well, Runaway Train. Scott knows how to do adrenaline-rush action without subjecting the audience to Michael Bay-style information overload, even if he does rely on fake local-TV news footage a bit too often. Even though we pretty much know how this is going to end, we don’t know how it’s going to get to that point, and it’s the details and complications that make this tense and gripping. Washington and Pine bounce off each other well in fine buddy-movie fashion, and the supporting cast delivers just the right amount of convincing concern without going too far over the top. And at a tight 98 minutes, the movie certainly doesn’t wear out its welcome the way so many other bloated blockbuster movies have done lately.

What I liked most about Unstoppable is how much genuine heart and humanity is contained within its basic action-flick framework. In an era where “extreme” violence and ironic detachment are the norm for genre films, this movie succeeds by simply making us care about its characters and the situation they’re in. We root for Frank and Will not because they’re invincible superheroes, but because they’re regular guys doing something heroic and admirable. It’s the old standby concept of “ordinary people in extraordinary situations” that’s worked for everything from North by Northwest to Speed, and it works yet again. I find that celebration of the common man much more appealing than the obnoxious macho posturing and heavy steroid abuse of The Expendables and movies like it. Most of us aren’t supercops or secret agents or (thank christ) mercenaries looking for a fight; we’re all just trying to get through the day with our heads above water. Unstoppable is a solid argument for the nobility of the Regular Guy, the person in the right place at the right time who does the right thing simply because he can. And boy, do we need that now more than ever.

I’m not surprised that they did a nationwide sneak for this, because this is exactly the kind of movie that will benefit greatly from strong word-of-mouth. I’m sure the highbrow critics will dismiss it as a “programmer” or a glorified B-movie, but for my money, Unstoppable is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in a theater all year. And I could be wrong, but I think audiences are going to feel the same way.

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