Todd McCarthy‘s thumbs-up review of Tony Scott‘s Unstoppable (20th Century Fox, 11.12) was posted yesterday afternoon, so I guess I can post mine also. My reaction is slightly less admiring than McCarthy’s. The first two-thirds of Unstoppable deliver first-rate popcorn pizazz, but the last third feels too manipulative.
WARNING: All of the HE brainiacs who may be expecting a bad-ass Tony Scott thriller about a runaway train to end tragically with all kinds of death and dishonor and toxic poisoning are hereby notified that information to the contrary is contained in this review.
Unstoppable is about a runaway train carrying toxic chemicals through the Pennsylvania rust belt and heading for a heavily-populated city that has a sharp curve in an elevated train track that might cause a derailment. It’s also about a slightly older engineer (Denzel Washington) and a young and somewhat brash conductor (Chris Pine) on another train in the general vicinity getting involved in a general effort to try and stop it.
Most of Unstoppable is as thrilling and jazzy and macho-adrenalized as I’d hoped after catching the trailer. Most. The fact that it has no villain is a relief, in a sense. Bad guys always means jaded histrionics, and it’s nice for a change to not have to deal with that. And yet — here’s the irony — it’s also a challenge to make an action movie go without a villain. Scott’s solution is to make it about metal and mettle and dependable charisma, about speed and logistics and air brakes and intra-company politics and three big train-track collisions or crashes. And about the hilly topography and moisture and worn-down, rust-belt ambiance of cold-weather Pennsylvania. Which I loved.
Scott throws in his usual high-end ingredients. The photography is by Ben Seresin (Transformers 2). The ace-level cutting by Robert Duffy and Chris Lebenzon. And the supporting characters have the usual attitude and vinegar — an alert dispatcher/coordinator (Rosario Dawson), a belligerent corporate stooge (Kevin Dunn), a doofus who caused the situation in the first place (Ethan Suplee), a train-system inspector (Kevin Corrigan), a brave railroad employee trying to chase down the runaway (Lew Temple). Put it all together and you’ve got something.
But the first 65% or 70% is better than the last 30% or 35%. Because for my money, Scott tries way too hard to get the audience to cheer in the last third. He won’t stop pushing for a rousing, stand-up-and-howl finale, and after a while you start to feel resentment. I don’t wanna cheer…see? Leave me alone, mug.
The backstory, character-arc stuff worked out for Denzel and Chris isn’t all that gripping, to be honest. It feels thin. Pine’s estranged wife, we’re told, has taken out a restraining order on him because he “scared” her. (And because he used a gun to confront the cop he wrongly suspected she was seeing?) Denzel is fearful and resentful at the railroad’s tendency to jettison older-guy veterans like himself, and his daughter is angry at him for forgetting to call on her birthday. None of this is especially compelling.
The media covers the runaway situation like a Super Bowl game. Everyone watching TV knows exactly what’s going on via chopper coverage, instant computerized visualization and breathless blow-by-blow commentary. And then it all works out (of course…are you expecting it to end with a 9/11-styled toxic disaster?) and the train eases to a stop and everyone is cheering their asses off. Denzel’s daughters think he’s cool again and Pine’s wife falls in love with him all over again and everything is peachy keen, and Suplee, we’re told, got fired and is now working in fast food. But it’s always a sign of weakness when a film uses one of those “this is what happened to the characters” epilogues.
But the first two-thirds of this film rock out. It’s sensationally shallow filmmaking of the best kind. And the last third is…well, it’s all right. I just wish Scott had trusted the bones of the story a bit more and not tried so hard to jack everyone up.
All in all it’s a well-cut, high-octane, jolt-cola movie. If you isolate the last third and think of the first 66 percent as the essence of Unstoppable (which of course you can’t), it’s the best big-hurtling-train thriller since John Frankenheimer‘s The Train (’64). The technical jargon, the gears, the braking systems, the throttles, the engine power, the rumble of these great iron beasts…it’s all great guy-movie stuff.
McCarthy writes that “Scott may have missed his mark by a bit on his last cinematic train ride with The Taking of Pelham One Two Three but he hits his target dead-on in Unstoppable. The best blue-collar action movie in who knows how long, this tense, narrowly focused thriller about a runaway freight train has a lean and pure simplicity to it that is satisfying in and of itself.
“But in its incidental portrait of discontented and discounted working stiffs who live marginal lives on society’s sidings and are angry to varying degrees, the film carries an unexpected weight and could connect with Middle American audiences in a big way.”