A freight train filled with tons of diesel fuel is boring, full-throttle, toward a Pennsylvania town. Soon-to-retire conductor Frank (Denzel Washington) and upstart newcomer Will (Chris Pine) are unceremoniously tasked with heading off the locomotive before disaster strikes. They’re helped out along the way by a feisty yard manager, Connie (Rosario Dawson), who instructs them on the path of the train from the relative safety of her command post, which means she was really never in danger to begin with. Do they stop the train before it derails and kills thousands of people? Does the title make a declarative statement that must otherwise be refuted by the outcome of the film? Is water wet?
In Unstoppable, it’s all about style over substance, baby. And who better to show off that particular skill than veteran action director Tony Scott, who wouldn’t know a line of deep dialogue if it came up and bit him in the balls, but can make you tense up like an old man at a rectal exam. Depth isn’t an issue here, of course, because this isn’t Bergman; it’s a multi-ton piece of metal and gears on a collision course with human beings. Scott uses sweeping overhead shots and the nifty trick of filtering much of the action through the lens of a news camera to heighten the tension, as entire towns are evacuated, and several unsuccessful attempts are made to stop the speeding bullet. Washington and Pine climb up and on and over the train in thrilling sustained set pieces, as they do their damndest to avoid potential catastrophe. The soundtrack roars, horns blast, and helicopters blaze in and out of frame. This movie is constant movement, total momentum, and I was surprised to find myself gritting my teeth as it–and the train–moved toward its conclusion.
If you’re looking for the character development of someone like, I don’t know, Mike Leigh, you’ve seriously got the wrong movie. Each of the characters is as flat as the screen you’re watching–and if I were that screen, I’d be offended. There are ludicrous subplots involving Will and his crumbling marriage, and Frank’s contempt for the younger union guys out to steal his job. Even as the climax mounts, Frank insists that Will spill his guts about why his wife chose to leave him. This would have been distracting–unforgivable, even– in another film, but the action of Unstoppable is so palpable, the sin of unnecessary exposition is barely noticeable.
Oh, and if I were Jessy Schram, I’d be having a long talk with my agent about how I got cast in a role (as Will’s wife), where the extent of my range is looking fearful and occasionally muttering “Oh my God!” It’s limiting, to say the least.