Year of Release: 2010
Date Viewed: March 19th, 2011
MPAA Rating: PG-13
There is something about a big powerful locomotive that produces a heedful aura. As a young child, a train crossing through the road and blocking the car's path was seen as an event. My first college dorm room was located near a busy railway. The loud horns often kept me awake at night with goosebumps. Even now if I was caught exercising my inner child and playing around with toy cars, it would be hard to resist simulating a big train crash that leaves behind a pile of mayhem in its path.
Unstoppable operates very much like a train itself. Slow to get going but becomes a fast and exciting ride after ample time. The premise is always an interesting one. When a worst-case workplace scenario occurs, a minor mistake escalates into a potential disaster.
On a fateful morning, veteran train engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) is paired with young conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine) for a routine shift at a Pennsylvania rail station. It's their first time working together and it gets off to a somewhat bad start when Will feels some resentment directed his way from Frank's similarly aged colleagues. Apparently some of the seasoned workers feel that Will's presence is threatening their job security. The pair begin their duties but limit their conversations which hints that both men are distracted by bigger personal issues.
Meanwhile at a related rail yard, a conductor makes a careless mistake when he disembarks from the cabin while his train is in motion to adjust the track path. Thanks to faulty brakes, the train unexpectedly picks up in acceleration and no one is able to catch up to it before it leaves the yard. Other rail workers are called in to reclaim control of the unmanned train but each attempt proves to be more difficult than the last because of the ever-increasing speed factor. If a solution is not soon reached, the runaway transport could be fatal especially with its hazardous cargo onboard. Frank and Will narrowly avoid their own demise when the two trains slightingly collide. With the rail traffic monitors running out of options, Frank takes matters into his own hands, utilizing all the collected technical knowledge to invent a plan for saving the day.
When I read the cast listing, I was anticipating something that resembled a buddy action flick complete with quips and the cliche pattern of two mismatched counterparts that discover they have more in common than initially thought. What I got instead was a working-class drama with heart. Although it's obvious from the start that Frank and Will are the heroes, the movie doesn't really treat them that way until they voluntarily make their move to quell the chaos. Up to that point, they exist as afterthoughts much like the way they're viewed by their superiors. Neither character anticipates their life having any greater significance than the duties of supporting the family and future family. That's why most of their conversations are about people other than themselves. The characters' believability helps in the suspension of disbelief during the less realistic moments.
The "ordinary guy turned hero" has become a trademark role for Denzel Washington in the past decade. While sometimes his tirades can put the performance into borderline self-parody, Washington wisely scales back into a more subdued state. The character is supposed to be past the point of anger, thus any thoughts of rebelliousness come with fatigue. Chris Pine has less to work with but puts forth a strong effort to separate himself from his peers of pretty-boy actors.
As for the action presentation, Unstoppable offers three different points of view in fast-paced transition. At one moment, we're onboard the train with Frank and Will to listen in on their thoughts and see things close-up. The next moment, there's an establishing shot of the runaway train showing no signs of slowing down. And then we see the vantage point of the television audience watching all the events unfold with narration from television anchors and the "breaking news" graphic running along the bottom of the screen. No unique emotion is left out.
What prevents Unstoppable from reaching classic status is Hollywood's typical unwillingness to stray too far from the blockbuster formula. The train is enough of a ferocious presence but that doesn't stop the producers from adding an unnecessary human antagonist. Harry Gregson-Williams' music score is appropriate but far too typical of the modern "assembly line" era of synthesized tunes.
If this movie had been released in the previous century, it could have easily ended up as a sequel to 1994's Speed. But since it's allowed to stand on its own, the thrills are more often genuine than cheap. I certainly recommend grabbing some popcorn and hopping aboard for the ride.