The premise for “Unstoppable” doesn’t sound like a disaster movie—it sounds like a parody of a disaster movie. It involves an unmanned, runaway train hurtling along the tracks at high speeds... But wait! The train is filled with explosive chemicals! But wait! It’s headed right for another train full of schoolchildren! But wait! It might fly off the track into a group of explosive fuel tanks! It’s up to an inexperienced conductor and a rogue, veteran engineer to catch up to the train and get it under control.
Yet in spite of its utterly ridiculous story, “Unstoppable” is actually entertaining, with most of the credit going to its two immensely likeable stars—the established Denzel Washington and the up-and-coming Chris Pine—and its well-paced action sequences.
The film opens by introducing the audience to Will Colson (Pine), a fresh-faced conductor straight out of training, and Frank Barnes (Washington), an engineer and 28-year veteran of the rails. Though Washington and Pine manage to make their characters likable, their roles are also completely cliché. Pine plays the standard newbie who constantly makes mistakes, and Washington plays a character that can blandly be described as the standard “man with nothing left to lose.” Washington has his wise-cracking-mentor act on full display, and it is as likable as ever. Pine mostly plays the straight man throughout the film and the back-and-forth they exhibit is fun to watch. The two are supported by Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), a dispatcher who, in an unsurprising move, rebels against her superiors in order to save lives rather than profit margins.
But the skill of Washington and Pine cannot mask the implausible nature of much of the film. A careless rail yard worker accidentally puts a high-speed train in motion down the track. The train is headed towards a group of schoolchildren, and later, the highly populated town of Stanford, Pa., where it will most likely derail and level the town. Apparently, the film is “inspired by true events,” but that does not help make the events of “Unstoppable” more believable. The stilted dialogue certainly does not do the film any favors either. Describing the situation, Dawson asserts, “We’re not talking about a train here. We’re talking about a missile the size of the Chrysler building.” Kudos to Dawson for being able to recite the line with a straight face.
Director Tony Scott does manage to produce some impressive action, however. In one busy sequence, a helicopter attempts to lower a technician onto the speeding train while a second news helicopter films the action. And, of course, the film’s climax has Washington running over the tops of and jumping between train cars. Scott has a good eye for framing all of this action, with quick cuts, overhead shots, and pounding music all helping to sell the illusion. If one complaint could be leveled against the film’s visuals, it is that all of what is supposed to be the environment of rural Pennsylvania ends up looking the same. There are only so many ways to shoot a train speeding through the woods without the visuals becoming homogenous.
“Unstoppable” is an enjoyable popcorn movie, but its scripting and story constantly weigh it down. It survives, however, on the immense likability of its two leads and its exciting action. If audiences can ignore the train wreck of plot contrivances, they should be in for a fun ride.
—Staff writer Brian A. Feldman can be reached at email@example.com.