Silver Screen: Unstoppable **
Hyperkinetic auteur Tony Scott's newest film, Unstoppable, about a runaway train loaded with chemicals, is heavily advertised as being based on a true story. That means one of two things: Either the movie's heroes ultimately stop the train, or somewhere out there on the East Coast, there's still a train full of chemicals zipping across the countryside.
That's a little bit unfair. Yes, it's fairly obvious that our heroes do stop the train, and knowing that doesn't necessarily diminish Unstoppable's potential as entertainment or as an inspirational tale of fighting back against seemingly impossible odds. But no movie can drape itself in true-story credentials and simultaneously be so formulaic and outlandish and expect to avoid mockery.
It certainly doesn't hurt Unstoppable's case that its two blue-collar heroes are played by the imminently likeable duo of Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. Washington's Frank is an experienced driver who's been moving freight across the country for more than twenty years, although the top brass are pushing him into early retirement. He's paired up with Will (Pine), a young conductor whose family connections got him a job. Both are given throwaway backstories-- Frank is a widower trying to support his college-age daughters, while Will is trying to bring his young family back from the brink of divorce-- but these are all just cheap, sentimental distractions from the heart of the movie, which is their unlikely camaraderie. In the era of recessions, downsizing, and the evaporation of a working class that actually works, the dynamic between the old master and the uncertain newbie has an added charge, and the actors' easy rapport brings out the nuances in their relationship.
The two men find their minds, mettle, and physical endurance tested when they're inadvertently left as the last best hope to prevent disaster. A couple of goofballs at another rail yard (Ethan Suplee and T.J. Miller) get lazy and screw up, allowing an unmanned train to coast onto a main railway line. Further bumbling and attempts at ass-covering send the train rocketing forward under its own power, with thousands of gallons of toxic, explosive chemicals in tow.
Dispatch operator Connie (Rosario Dawson) picks up on the error and tries to solve it quickly, but meddling from the top brass (Kevin Dunn) working on behalf of the shareholders keeps her from making a costly correction. Soon it's too late, and the train... well, obviously, cannot be stopped. Only Frank, using his insider's knowledge and getting some help from the plucky Will, can hatch and execute an unlikely plan that will keep the tankers full of chemicals from causing a fiery inferno followed by a toxic cloud.
But before the train can even reach the town, obstacles appear in its way: A passenger line full of schoolchildren! A trailer full of horsies! Gasp! Scott and screenwriter Mark Bomback leave no absurdity unturned as they amp up the stakes until the only thing that could seem to stop the train would be the sheer weight of the movie's melodrama. They're determined to shoehorn this interesting true story into a movie-friendly template no matter how illogically the characters must behave. Certainly the apex of this silliness comes when Will's estranged wife takes her young son to the site of the imminent chemical explosion so they can see if dad can avert catastrophe. If you're prone to shouting at the screen when characters act irrationally, be sure to bring a throat lozenge to this one.
Scott's shaky, swooping camera and cut-to-bits editing style make this another headache-inducing entry in his obnoxious oeuvre. Not only is it annoying, but the style here proves counterproductive; every scene is shot with such jittery tension and edited into such an image frenzy that by the time our guys start performing daring physical feats, there's no way to adequately capture the motion and intensity. Scott films somebody drinking a cup of coffee with the same series of quick cuts and zooms that he uses for a man dangling between two cars of a speeding train about to explode, so it all gets mushed together in a blurry mess.
Still, it's nice to have a movie that celebrates experience, knowledge, and good workmanship (even if Suplee's real-life counterpart, who basically made a simple mistake, is cast as the Bill Buckner of railroad workers), and it's nicer still to see Pine and Washington paired up. Without Scott getting in the way, these two guys would be... well, certainly not easy to stop.