By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic
“Just letting you know, we’re going to run this b—- down!”
Runaway Train, Speed, we’ve seen out of control behemoth vehicles before and for some reason we fall for the heart-palpitating notion of innocent people being killed by an uncontrollable force. Granted Unstoppable doesn’t break the mold, but it’s based on a true story — and its good.
A lackadaisical Pennsylvania engineer (Ethan Suplee, TV’s My Name Is Earl) and his equally inept conductor are supposed to move a new 39-car freight train a short distance. It’s an easy task, except they cut corners; they don’t connect a key airbrake and the portly engineer leaves the moving train to change a track switch. Oops! The train is now an unmanned coaster and he can’t catch it. Yard chief Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) is peeved but not panicked, as there are safety features within the train that should bring it to a halt. As each feature fails, irritation turns to concern and the 50-mile-an-hour train, filled with deadly combustible chemicals, is headed towards Stanton, Pennsylvania, where the consequences could be tragic.
Meanwhile middle-aged, 28-year veteran engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) is facing forced retirement with reduced benefits and his work detail has teamed him up with a cocky new hire, conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine, Star Trek) who is having marriage problems. “If you don’t know something, just ask,” snorts Frank to Will. The young buck ignores him. Their testy relationship turns into a bonding experience when they discover they are on a collision course with a train the size of the Chrysler Building.
The train run amuck starts within ten minutes of the opening credits, providing jaw-dropping tension that doesn’t diminish until the movie ends. The big villain, a huge locomotive loaded with Phenol, Molten that could derail and kill multitudes is an ominous antagonist. The corporate executive (Kevin Dunn) who eschews public safety and makes mistake after mistake based on saving the company’s name and profits is an equal adversary.
The script adds elementary school kids on a field trip on a packed train that is in direct danger. Barnes and Colson face death too, as do countless victims. The drama feels organic and is enhanced by characters that have just enough depth and conflict. When Barnes and Colson become active protagonists taking on the heroic task of saving the day, you have to root for them.
Director Tony Scott, a pro with action films (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Taking of the Pelham 1,2,3), doesn’t use the typical, easy-way-out — CGI filmmaking. He prefers stunt men and outrageous stunts. He knows how to turn on the thrills full throttle. The train looks gigantic and menacing as it crashes through railroad crossings annihilating trucks and cars. Helicopters hover above. Hooper, in the tense command center, is frantic as she battles a potential catastrophe. Everything is in motion.
Ben Seresin’s cinematography, Mark Bomback’s tight script and precision editing by Chris Lebenzon supply the strong visuals, gripping storytelling and break-neck speed.
Washington has played “the everyman, working class hero” before in films like John Q and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3; he knows how to milk the blue-collar character — a widowed father with two teenage daughters. He’s ornery, belligerent and possesses an inner strength audiences love. Pine as the young husband with a failed relationship seeks redemption and his quest is equally appealing. Dawson and the rest of the supporting actors make worthy contributions.
Trust me, you’ll get sucked in to this thrill ride. It’s filled with jaw-dropping tension. All aboard!