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Unstoppable: This Train is Worth The Ride

As someone who is not a Tony Scott fan, I was not looking forward to Unstoppable. The idea of a runaway train didn’t seem exciting to me, it seemed like it would be predictable and full of train jargon, and least promising of all, Tony Scott’s previous film with Denzel and a train, The Taking of Pelham 123, was lacking in the thrills department. Let me put your mind at ease: Unstoppable is Tony Scott’s best film in years, an exciting, engaging crowd-pleaser. The performances, while not Oscar-worthy, are the type of perfect genre performances that give the proceedings (based on a true story) credibility, which in turn succeeds in making the audience emotionally invested. Even if you can guess what’s going to happen, Scott manages to keep the tension nail-bitingly thick. Get a ticket for this train– you’ll be glad you did.

Will Colson (Chris Pine) arrives at his first day of work as a train conductor. He’s not too happy– he’s jumped from job to job, and his wife has kicked him out of the house and slapped a restraining order on him. Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) isn’t too happy about training Will, since the train company is trying to phase out the older workers, and Will got the conductor job sooner than most because of family connections in the union. Meanwhile, a train conductor named Dewey (Ethan Suplee) accidentally loses a massive train while trying to move it to a new track, and Murphy’s Law goes into effect: not only are the air brakes not connected, but the throttle has shifted into the highest gear, so this giant train is now accelerating nonstop. Oh, and there are eight cars of combustible chemicals on board. Did we mention the field trip on a train headed for a collision course with it? And the sharp bend in the tracks right above a heavily populated city?

We’ve seen enough films to suspect that it’s wildly unlikely that our heroes will fail and the train will careen off the tracks into the city and explode. In fact, if the film has a flaw, it’s that repeated deja vu feeling of two types of events– the “something bad is going to happen and then the train barely misses” moment, and then the “attempt to stop the train which looks like it might work and then fails” moment. However, something curious happens during the film, in particular the final 45 minutes or so. You stop caring about the predictability and you become invested in what’s transpiring. I can’t pinpoint exactly when this happens, but at a certain point the formula stops peeking through and it becomes seamless thrilling entertainment. Maybe it’s because the opening title, “based on a true story,” makes you marvel at the courage of the men involved (even though it’s very loosely based), but I think it’s more due to the perfect blend of writing, directing, and acting. It’s a genre flick with no fringe or twist– there’s nothing in this film that is unusual or different than I expected, except for how entertaining it manages to be.

Tony Scott begins the film with his trademark, and the blurry stylized visuals during the opening credits are the worst part of the film. Not since Jadakiss’ birdcall noise has there been a more annoying and distracting trademark in entertainment. His visuals focus in from there, and while it’s still heavily shadowed and somewhat dull-looking (a fitting color palate for the working-class Pennsylvania setting), he keeps the film moving quickly along, and sequences like the man trying to drop onto the train from a helicopter manage to be quite enthralling. Washington and Pine both seem to not be doing much work, but it’s because the performances aren’t showy. Note how they easily establish their backstories with nothing more than a glance at their phone or by their responses to initial adversity. Frank Barnes is the type of guy who is always right when it comes to his job, and Will Colson is the type of guy always judged about his age and background who may be worth more than he knows. They butt heads in a natural believable manner. Other actors like Rosario Dawson, Kevin Corrigan, and in particular Kevin Dunn do solid character-actor work as those at the control center and the train company office trying to manufacture solutions to the problem. You might be reading these last few sentences and groaning, and you’re not wrong– they’re not rewriting the book. But just like Triple 7 in the film, the movie starts out ordinary and before you know it, it’s zooming forward and keeping you in suspense.

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~ by russellhainline on November 16, 2010.

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