Unreal Movie Review: Unstoppable

Tony Scott may play second fiddle to his brother Ridley, as an Oscar and the bragging rights of crafting classics such as Alien and Blade Runner will do that, but as the pair gets older, both are sticking with their formulas, and only one is creating truly enjoyable films recently.

With 2001’s Gladiator arguably his latest great achievement in the last decade (yes, yes, I know all about the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven), Ridley’s films like American Gangster, Body of Lies and Robin Hood have fallen short of his past work. Tony’s films are usually less epic in scale, and with that comes diminished expectations. But films like Man of Fire, Domino and even Pelham 123 have been solid action thrillers, and Unstoppable is perhaps his best work in years.

Two men trying to stop a train that won’t slow down doesn’t seem like a particularly grand concept for a movie. Yes, we know trains go fast, but how exciting can it really be? I was also immediately put off by the “inspired by true events” tag, as according to movie logic, that means that somewhere, at some point, some train was unmanned, but actually the story behind the film mirrors the plot closely enough to earn that “inspired” badge for a change.

“If we’re both out here, who’s driving the…uh oh!”

The facts are these, in 2001 a train left its station carrying a few cars of toxic chemicals. An inept engineer (Ethan Suplee in the film) got out of the slow moving train to flip a switch, but accidentally left it powered up. He failed to hop back on in time, and thus the train was stuck in full throttle, speeding across the countryside with hazardous materials that could cause a huge disaster should the train fail to be stopped.

The similarities might end there, as the real life disarming of the train fails to live up to the required Hollywood action quotient, and so Tony Scott takes many liberties in that regard. But what he does craft is an extremely exciting and tense movie…about trains. Not a terribly easy feat.

A simple comparison might be to a film like Speed, in which a bus full of passengers is not allowed to slow down lest it explode, but here there’s no bad guy pulling the strings. It’s human error, not terrorism that creates the threat, and the giant, unflinching, monolithic face of the 777 train is more menacing than any rebooted horror movie villain we’ve seen recently.

“OK train, you’re gonna have to calm down or I’m gonna kick your ass.”

But the film needs people too, and once again, Tony Scott has turned to his friend for life Denzel Washington, who does everything in his power to turn a mediocre film great. Yes, he’s playing the same role of “guy who is really good at his job” as he always has, but there’s a reason we like that character so much, and yet again Washington has powerful onscreen presence and dry wit to boot.

Opposite him is newcomer Chris Pine in his first real role since breaking onto the scene as Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek film. And yet again here he plays “cocky newcomer” but by the end of the film, the two have a good dynamic going on that transcends the stereotypes of the characters. Pine is given a backstory that has him fighting to see his wife and son after a restraining order is placed on him, and Washington reveals his wife has died and his two daughters are now paying their way through college by working at Hooters. Yes, Hooters. The pair are two ordinary railworkers who end up trying to be the heroes who bring the crazy train to a halt.

Tony Scott’s typical shaky cam style is not only welcome but necessary in a movie about a runaway train, though some of his shots can be a bit confusing. Often from one angle the train looks like its crawling, but then another shot will make it appear to be flying at just short of the speed of light.

“I’ll just hold them together!”

The film, much like the initial train, starts slow, but eventually picks up steam and by the end it’s nearly required for you to be on the edge of your seat. My only complaint with the final drama is that the frequent cuts to a bunch of girls bouncing with excitement watching the news at Hooters tends to take you out of the moment.

Yes, it’s fairly predictable, as you’re never really meant to believe an entire city will be covered in toxic goo at the end, but the ride to get there is exhilarating. It’d classify it as a good natural disaster movie, even though the scenario in question is actually man made. It’s a topic that shouldn’t have made for an interesting film, but with the power team of Scott, Denzel and Pine, it’s impossible not to like.

4 out of 5 stars

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  1. Thanks for the great review! My wife and I were thinking about movies we wanted to see tonight, we’ll probably go see this now.

    Keep up the great work Paul!

  2. The sheer tagline “1 million tons!” in the commercials is enough cause for me to absolutely give no credit nor have any desire to see this movie. I mean really???? Really???? I can suspend disbelief to a point, but its just comical.

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