Monday, November 15, 2010
The more I learned about the hell in store if the runaway train in Unstoppable hit the sharp curve it was barreling toward without slowing down, the more I feared for the good people of Stanton, Pennsylvania. This train weighs 10 million pounds and is going over 70 mph? It’s carrying 30,000 gallons of a toxic chemical so combustible the train’s essentially “a missile the size of the Chrysler building,” as Connie (Rosario Dawson), the righteous railyard operator, informs her greedhead boss? And the S curve it’s headed for is not only smack in the middle of Stanton but directly over a series of fuel tanks? Good God, people, run for your lives! Don’t you know you’re in a Tony Scott movie? There is no way he could resist setting off a fireball that awesome.
Few living directors whip up a frappe of things going really fast and things blowing up better than Scott. He makes the train look pretty fast (though rarely scarily so) mostly by showing it in a series of quick takes that are often shot from different angles and sometimes blurred. And he makes it feel huge and, well, unstoppable, by pounding away at our eardrums with a steady barrage of heavily amplified chugs and squeals and an operatic score by Hans Zimmer protégé Harry Gregson-Williams.
The actual runaway train that inspired the film barreled through Ohio in 2001 for more than two hours before being stopped by three engineers, who were sent by the company that owned the train. Unstoppable turns the company’s internal debate over how to stop it into that time-honored movie triangle: a clash between a heroic inside-the-system worker (Dawson’s Connie), an arrogant corporate bigwig (Connie’s boss Galvin, played by Kevin Dunn), and a Dirty Harry-style rogue operator (Denzel Washington’s Frank) who bonds with the heroic worker to Get the Job Done. Dawson and Washington are enormously appealing actors who know how to hold our attention, but their personal magnetism is trumped by the cliché-ridden script. The same goes for Chris Pine, who plays the rookie Frank is teaching and sparring with – until they learn about the runaway train and bond to save the day.
The film starts slowly, alternating elementary character development with the start of the train’s journey, but the pace picks up once the chase is on. Even when there’s nothing more dramatic going on than a phone call, the camera swirls around restlessly, circling like a hyperactive pup, and when the train finally hits that S curve, it careens like something out of Looney Tunes. Rapid cuts between scenes also keep the energy level high – and the characters underdeveloped.
Two near-collisions are so close they almost cross the line from dramatic to comic, including one with a train full of schoolkids on a field trip to learn about (oh, the irony) train safety. A failed attempt to stop the train, which we know from the start is doomed because it was cooked up by Connie’s boss, ends in the inevitable fireball. Meanwhile, we get the required dose of skin from Frank’s gorgeous daughters when we catch up with them at work – at Hooters, where they bend over compliantly for the camera before watching dad’s heroics on TV. (That TV coverage may be the most improbable part of the movie: Fox newscasters broadcast every fact accurately and practically instantly, apparently hearing what’s going on the minute the train company’s managers have figured it out.)
The second half of this movie kept reminding me of Buster Keaton’s The General, a brilliantly choreographed train chase movie that’s also much more. The stunts in The General aren’t there just to give you a visceral thrill, though they do that too. They also make you fear for a character you care about, and they make you laugh – at things as serious as war or as silly as Buster’s girlfriend’s inability to stoke the train’s steam engine.
Conveying the thrill of things going fast or exploding is an important part of the craft of making action movies, but the art is in the storytelling. Without a character we care about or a plot beyond the basic need to stop a runaway train, all the rushing around in Unstoppable is just so much commotion.
Written for TimeOFF