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I just don't understand why a new Tony Scott movie comes out every year or so. Scott's intentions are always clear, so they aren't the source of my marvel. Movie executives keep shoving money into his hands to make brain-dead action movies that Scott-friendly editor Chris Lebenzon can cut the shit out of. These guys use seven cameras to portray a kitten's sneeze as a heart-stopping explosion. Oddly enough, this is the second movie in a row for the duo that involves Denzel Washington, some trains, and dreadful representation of blue-collar workers. Thankfully, Unstoppable doesn't live up to its name, and winds down after the 90-minute mark.
Trains have been around longer than any other kind of high-speed land transport, and show no signs of dying out any time soon. Admittedly, I've never given the railroad industry the just consideration that it deserves. I share this with quite a few filmmakers out there who can't think of anything to do with a train besides make it go really fast before it explodes. (A solid exception being Brad Anderson's Transsiberian, which cared enough to inject a plot into things.) Unstoppable falls victim to Mark Bomback's inability to write a blockbuster, though his quieter films are terrible as well. I have to wonder what kind of precarious position he caught Tony Scott in for this film to have been made. It feels like a favor was done somewhere.
For those with their scorecards out, let's go over this limpid story. In a frequently referenced Pennsylvania, dim-bulb railroader Dewey (Ethan Suplee) is supposed to get a freight train off the main line in order to make way for a train of schoolchildren out on a joyous field trip. (We always took a bus.) Accordingly, Dewey not only fails to move the train, but he actually sends it off at full throttle without having hooked up the locomotive's air brakes. Spoiler alert: not only is he not immediately terminated, but later, when everyone has their eyes glued to the FOX News footage, Dewey is there and just as vocal. I can't imagine why FOX allowed their name to be used, as the reporting is God-awful and ridiculously on the nose. Oh wait, that's just FOX.
Luckily for everyone in the Pennsylvania area, veteran engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) is forced to take on newbie Will Colson (Chris Pine) as his conductor for what should be a by-the-book transport. The Murtaugh-ish Frank has 28 good, solid years on the job, and Will is so fresh, he's sushi. Those completely different stereotypes can't possibly persevere for about an hour inside of a train locomotive in duress. Add to that Frank's strained relationship with his daughter, as told by one-sided cell phone conversations, and Will's "other story," involving a rift in he and his girlfriend's relationship. These things are all we have to identify with these characters, and I'm more impressed with the back of a generic cereal box. I don't care that Chris Pine is completely neutral, but Denzel's (train) track record is frequently losing all semblances of thespianism. As long has he has a big laugh somewhere around the end, we know he's an alright guy.
Further down the tracks, yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) gets wind of this predicament, and her panties bunch up immediately. After all, kids are in danger, and the safety inspector giving their presentation, played with minimal effort by Kevin Corrigan, is on site and is as confused as anyone. Kevin Dunn comes in as Oscar Galvin, the money-minded decision-making VP of operations. Also, Kevin Chapman has a bit role. Three Kevins for the skill of one. The only other role worth mentioning is that of welder Ned Oldham (Lew Temple), who spends the movie chasing the train in his pick-up truck. As Unstoppable is sequentially told all in one afternoon, we only get to see these people at their job, under extreme pressure. Nobody here gets a backstory long enough to fill a baseball card.
Is it naive to assume that everyone who knows about this movie could predict the entire storyline? Do you really think dozens of children are going to be slaughtered in a train explosion? And when it's found out that there are explosive chemicals on board, does anyone expect them to explode in the middle of a populated area? There's no creative or quirky digressions from the action, which I wouldn't complain about if the action were there. The conflict here is between Connie and Galvin, who have different ideas of how to resolve the situation before anything explodes. The risks are there, sure, but it's mostly a waiting game until Frank finally stops making pissy comments to Will, gets off his ass, and does something. Oh yes, because their "newbie vs. veteran" conflict is supposed to mean something as well.
Despite some decent sequences and all the impressive sound effects, there wasn't much for me to care about in Unstoppable. This isn't a widely panned film, so I know I'll take some heat for it. Regardless, I would rather watch a confused but ambitious Scott film, as in Deja Vu, over a paint-by-number flick like this. Scott knows enough to trim all the fat, but he chopped up all the meat as well. I may have enjoyed this more had I watched it on a flight, knowing that Top Gun is the worst thing Scott has done for airplanes. The only way I would have been more disappointed is if I'd rooted for the train. See it if you love this kind of movie, and tie me to the tracks if you disagree.
As Unstoppable only bored me instead of being completely unwatchable, the special features were impressive enough, even if their number is slight. The featurette is the half-hour long "The Faster Track: Unleashing Unstoppable," and is a well-documented journey through the making of the film. I won't lie, it was impressive seeing the way Scott shot the movie, as he avoided almost any kind of computer-created special effects. He used everything possible, from helicopters to road-closing side-car cameras, to create the realism that the film exudes. I wonder if less excitement in production would have meant more excitement in the story. Probably not, but it's an excellent extra nonetheless.
Two commentaries are available for listening. One is a straight-up commentary from Scott himself, and it's enjoyable. There is an energy to Scott when he talks about what he's created that is easy to buy into, even if I don't agree with all of his accolades for everyone else's efforts. The second audio track is even more enjoyable. Scott and screenwriter Mark Bomback talk through the film, and it feels like a natural conversation. They discuss the script quite a bit, as well as locations and the filmmaking process in general. It's frustrating that I enjoy hearing about the film more than watching it. At least I can't call bullshit on anyone's convictions.
So there it is. I'm not going to watch it again ever in my life. Feel free to do so yourself. In any case, don't let your kids take the train. Or a car. Or a plane.
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