On paper Unstoppable looks like a relic, a leftover from a time when people were still impressed by railroads. The trains are still out there, chugging across the American landscape carrying everything that won’t fit in an 18-wheeler, but (despite the efforts of Wes Anderson) Hollywood no longer cares and they haven’t since somewhere around 1985. That was the year Eric Roberts and Jon Voight starred in Runaway Train, capping off a couple decades worth of movies and made for TV endeavors in which the railroads lose control of a locomotive, sending it willy nilly down the tracks towards a heavily populated area with no way to stop it. People haven’t really cared about trains since. Except, apparently, Tony Scott and Denzel Washington.
Scott and Washington appear as though they’re suddenly obsessed with trains, this is their second movie on the subject in as many years, and luckily, it’s the best. That may not be saying much when you’re measuring it against a colossal failure like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, but Unstoppable is every bit as fun and exciting as Pelham was not. Unstoppable is about a runaway train loaded, of course, with deadly chemicals which will kill thousands when it derails. This premise should seem worn out and dated, it’s been done so often, but it hasn’t really been done lately and trains in general have been gone so long from theaters, that even though we’ve seen this before, it’s almost fresh.
Frank (Denzel Washington) is an experienced engineer who’s just been saddled with a newly recruited conductor named Will (Chris Pine). Unstoppable makes a clear line of demarcation between their roles in the locomotive, that’s actually part of the fun of the movie, the way it cares about all the minutiae of what it takes to ride the rails. Scott’s direction revels in all the little details of running trains, and uses those seemingly minor things not only to tell his story, but to build tension. You’ll learn everything there is to know about running a rail yard without even knowing it, because you’ll be too busy watching as those little things build inevitably towards disaster.
Frank drives the train but Will, as the conductor, is the boss. Frank never leaves the locomotive, but Will hops out to make sure all the cars are attached and everything’s hooked up properly, before telling Frank to go. Will, being new and somewhat distracted by personal drama we’re not entirely privy too at first, screws up. Frank, who already resents Will as some young whippersnapper stealing jobs from experienced train men, lets him have it. But Will’s mistake is minor, and not nearly on the scale of the screwup happening at another train depot down the track.
Two idiots in the rail yard miles away accidentally lose control of a locomotive, sending it barreling down the tracks completely unmanned. This may seem completely ridiculous, but the movie goes so far out of its way to explain all the fail safes involved and just exactly how two such incompetents could screw them up, that it feels completely plausible. The railroad company’s reaction is equally authentic and detailed, but at the same time never boring. You buy into it, even while you’re watching guys chasing after the runaway in pickup trucks.
What’s a little harder to swallow is that the train is loaded with something so deadly it’ll kill everyone if it derails, but ok, by then you’re willing to go with it. And you’ll keep going with it, when not long after Frank and Will decide it’s their job to chase the runaway down and stop it, before it flies off the tracks and wipes out the city where, incidentally, everyone Frank and Will care about lives.
While it’s great fun watching Washington jump from one train car to the next, or Pine hanging from a coupling by his toes, the real reason Unstoppable works so well is in the way it takes so many small details and builds something bigger out of it. I’m not just talking about the mechanics of train operation; it takes the same approach to its characters too. Frank’s resentment of Will unfolds over time, built on little details in the way he reacts and handles his situation. Will’s family problems find their own way to the forefront too, and we find out bit by bit, detail by detail, what each man’s about.
If there’s a problem with Unstoppable it’s the film’s strange tendency towards cutting way to media coverage of what’s going on, rather than just showing us what’s going on. It’s a fairly common modern movie phenomenon, as if the filmmaker is unable to attach any importance to what’s happening on his own, without showing you some reporter talking about it to tell you how important it is. It’s cheap and unnecessary, especially here, in a movie that’s otherwise so capably put together. I don’t really want to watch the grainy, news ticker plagued footage of Denzel Washington leaping from one train car to the next. Just show me Denzel actually doing it. Everything else just gets in the way of Scott’s otherwise sharp, arresting, visual style.
If it had been made in 1986 this film would be one big cliché. Instead, Unstoppable is a surprisingly taut and entertaining train thriller which takes some of those old ideas and breathes modern life into them. Trains are unlikely to become the new vampires, but you won’t regret taking a trip down these tracks.