Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It Can't Be Stopped!

What do you get when you cross one of America's greatest actors, one of it's up-and-coming stars, and a runaway train? If you're director Tony Scott, the answer is Unstoppable, the "based on a true story" tale of two train engineers who take it upon themselves to try and stop an unmanned train that presents a danger to the people along whose rail it runs. The film was inspired by the real-life CSX 8888 incident in which a runaway train carrying hazardous chemicals went rampant through the state of Ohio before finally being brought under control by CSX employees and local authorities. I won't lie, I wasn't entirely behind seeing this film. Besides the fact that the trailer made the film seem so over-the-top dramatic to the point of almost unwatchable, there had been other options out there that seemed far more palatable to my tastes than this. Finding myself out of those options for the first time in a while (and of course needing all the material I can get for three reviews a week) I decided that I liked Denzel Washington and Chris Pine enough (not to mention the foxy Rosario Dawson... Rawr) to slip into theaters unseen and catch this while it was available.

Wait... This isn't the set of Star Trek 2...
There's very little in the way of deep story here. Thanks to the ineptitude of train yard employees, a train trailed by rail cars measuring a half mile long gets loose and under power, entering the main line unmanned and becoming a danger to every community along the rail. Meanwhile, Will Colson (Chris Pine), a young train conductor, arrives at work and learns he's paired with veteran engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), with whom he's never worked before. After the beginnings of a rocky partnership, plus almost being crashed into by the runaway locomotive, the two team up on the crazy idea of running down and stopping this engine of death. Real deep, riveting stuff.

Washington gets paid big bucks to make you see films like this
Fortunately, the film is a lot more watchable than you might initially think. Yes, it does feature a train full of kids in danger, but those same kids - who the trailer would have you think are a major focal point of the film - are out of danger a mere quarter of the way through the film. So that's one major criticism avoided, as that aspect of the trailer was probably the most over-the-top storyline bit they could have introduced. The film is also compellingly watchable, and if that doesn't seem like the best of compliments, remember that it could have been MUCH worse. The sad truth is that Tony Scott manages to make two men chasing a runaway train in a single locomotive extremely entertaining, and even if it's not a perfect film it can easily be enjoyed by someone looking to just unwind and not think too much. Another good point is it's intelligence with train operation. The film often fills in what might be critics' complaints about the plot by explaining why a train's "dead man" switch doesn't trip or how a device called a "derailer" could fail to derail a sufficiently-laden train. While I should probably feel insulted that the film so openly explains tiny details as if I don't know how a train operates, the truth is that I - as well as most film-goers seeing this title - DON'T know how trains operate, and actually benefit from these open, simple explanations.

No trains were harmed in the making of this film
That said, the film does get a little out-of-hand starting at the mid-point of the tale, as the attempts by the railroad company to stop its runaway get more and more ridiculous. When it's finally Will and Frank's chance to do their part, it's almost a relief because it puts an end to the silliness that had come before. Characters are also pretty slim pickings, as they seem to be pulled from the cliche heap. Will is a husband and father who has found his way into the dog house and starts the film sleeping on his brother's couch. Frank is a father with a dead wife and two daughters, one of whom's birthday happens to be that very day and OF COURSE Frank forgot. It's stuff like this that reminds you that this is Tony Scott, the action-oriented younger brother of the more talented and varied filmmaker Ridley Scott. Tony doesn't DO high class drama, he's an all-American action boy. And he knows how to blow stuff up almost as well as Michael Bay.

The same can not be said, however, for train EMPLOYEES
The film's acting is fine, if not given much material to work with. Washington is getting a paycheck as Frank, whose idea it is to try and capture the train in the first place. This is a typical B-level Washington film, one of the dozens he has sprinkled throughout his career in between solitary drops of actual top-shelf quality film. One might say that he's limiting himself by appearing in so many low-brow releases that he might not be as well remembered after his career as some of his contemporaries, such as Tom Hanks. I however give him credit for doing his career his way and he'll be remembered as one of the most talented actors in Hollywood once his time in the spotlight comes to an end. Pine is obviously an up-and-comer whose big break-out, Star Trek, made him a world-wide phenomena. While not allowed to churn out his Jim  Kirk charm, Pine does a fine job as the young conductor simply trying to get by. Rosario Dawson is good as a train yardmaster who keeps tabs on the duo and helps them figure out what to do in order to stop the train. Once again, there's not a lot for her to do besides support the film's heroes while being angry at her higher-ups who consistently gunk up the works. Kevin Dunn plays the film's main human antagonist (because Scott believes that every film needs at least ONE), a corporate executive for the rail company that looks out more for the interests of the company than the people this train might harm. Ethan Suplee plays a train yard worker who instigates the whole mess. Suplee plays it like a semi-retarded manatee, which is pretty much his range. And Lew Temple plays his train welder as an unlikely secondary hero and is also a hick with a capital H.

Though the film does exaggerate the events that actually occurred during the real event, there is nothing so out there as to be completely unbelievable, and Scott does a good job at making sure that your eyes watch the screen at all times. It was poorly advertised and looked much worse in the trailers than it did while sitting in on an actual screening, lending credence to the idea that seeing is believing. Unstoppable is a film that is much better than it deserves to be, but like brother Ridley's 2010 effort Robin Hood, is far from reaching the true potential set by its respective genre. The result is a film that, while overly-relying on fictional danger and poor character designs, manages to entertain through sheer simplicity. And who doesn't want to keep it simple once in a while?
"Warp factor 1, Sulu. Engage."


Opinioness of the World said...

Ahhh Tony Scott LOVES Denzel Washington. I mean he must since they've teamed up on numerous films. But THE best Scott/Washington hook-up is hands down "Crimson Tide."

P.S. Remember how I skeeved out Rosario Dawson's boyfriend with my shocked expression on Newbury Street??

Gianni said...

At the very least Scott loves that Washington is willing to come in and work his ass off, no matter the quality of the story or setting. That's dedication! You're right, Crimson Tide is their best collaboration, absolutely.

Yes, I remember you describing your slow head turn when you realized who she was and her boyfriend's reaction. That was awesome. Side note: The Zookeeper, which she was filming with Kevin James at the time, was pushed back from this past October to next July. Not a good sign for the film, even though I had no interest in seeing it in the first place.