Dir. Tony Scott
Release Date: Nov 12, 10
Unstoppable is a throwback to the early/mid-90s action movie through and through. There’s a high-concept maybe-disaster premise, a brash rookie with an attitude problem bantering with a future retiree who’s getting too old for this shit, applied special effects, a hokey pop song over the end credits and a sense of humor juxtaposed with nonstop action of escalating insanity. And until you’ve seen it, you may not realize how much this kind of American action filmmaking has been missed.
Like a 21st century update of Andrey Konchalovskiy’s Runaway Train on steroids, Unstoppable wisely gets things rolling (one of an infinite volume of puns to be made here) early on and without much foot-dragging. Will Colston (Chris Pine) is a legally embattled newbie in a freight train yard who’s been assigned to work with Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), a 28-year veteran who so instinctively knows trains that he can do his job on instinct, and to Will’s chagrin, can correct a mistake without even looking up from the control panel.
After a negligent employee (Ethan Suplee) sets train 777 loose without any auxiliary means of stopping it, it’s up to Will and Frank to track it down and stop it from derailing. Oh yeah, and there are hazardous chemicals on the train. And there are children on the track. If this already sounds unreasonable to you, odds are Unstoppable is the wrong film to check out this weekend. Like the best action films, it’s relentlessly earnest, right down to the title, which aims to capture both the plot and the indomitable force of Denzel being infinitely wise and unflappable in the face of mortal peril. The film wastes very little time setting up the stakes, and director Tony Scott knows exactly how to play things: tight, lean and with a pronounced wink.
In a time where CGI is the norm for action films whether they need it or not, it’s refreshing to see a film use real stunt work and explosives. This makes for an effective set of showstopping sequences, which the film spaces out perfectly, including an ill-fated attempt to stop the train by hitting it head-on and braking and Will’s climactic daredevil maneuver involving a leaking grain car and an airbrake connection. The action sequences, rather than being full of one-liners and fury signifying nothing (like so many action films released this year), have legitimate stakes; we care enough about Will and Frank that we want to see them tame the unruly freighter. The film actually benefits from story economy, as Scott understands that audiences are here to see action and not clunky exposition, and so works small doses of character development into scenes in a way that feels organic rather than shoehorned.
Scott also scores a coup with his uniformly excellent cast, who don’t overplay their material. Rosario Dawson takes the usually thankless Captain Exposition role and puts a sarcastic twist on it, aided by journeyman character actor Kevin Corrigan as a train inspector who just happens to know all about the chemicals on 777 and how to slow it down. Pine plays the cocky hero well, as he demonstrated in last year’s Star Trek reboot, but does well with a role that’s a little more flawed, a bit less likable than Captain Kirk. Washington is the absolute standout here, though. In a role that could easily have veered into wise old man (or worse, “Magical Negro”) territory, he gives Frank a weary humor, a feeling of having been rendered obsolete despite spending decades perfecting a very specific skill set.
Unstoppable, like Frank, gives off a feeling of a film not belonging to the present. It nails the romance of real explosions and working-class heroes, lovingly sarcastic jabs and so-impossible-it’s-almost-plausible action impeccably, all with a refreshing earnestness. It’s a shame that calling it the best action film of 2010 isn’t higher praise, because it deserves to be acknowledged above and beyond the tripe that’s preceded it. This is popcorn filmmaking in its purest, finest form.