Friday, November 12, 2010

Unstoppable: Unrelenting

Unstoppable (2010) • View trailer for Unstoppable
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.12.10

There’s something about trains.

In the same way that baseball movies are far more interesting than football movies, thrillers set on trains are much more involving than similar stories set on planes, ships, cars or buses. Call it the romance of the rails; call it whatever you like. The simple truth is that train movies touch us profoundly.
Hey, it's a movie about a runaway train ... which means that veteran brakeman
Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) eventually will wind up climbing on top of
the beast and trying to make his way to the engine. Think he'll make it?

Some actors shy away from sharing the screen with children or small animals, lest they be upstaged. Trains can be added to that list; it’s almost as if they’re living, breathing entities with souls of their own.

Buster Keaton dazzled viewers all the way back in 1926, with the train-oriented comedy of The General. Cinema’s avowed master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, understood the power of trains; one of his very first talkies, 1932’s Number 17, climaxed with a furious train and car chase (using a tabletop model train set for much of the “action,” but hey; he did his best). Hitch perfected the template a few years later, with 1938’s The Lady Vanishes, and we’ve thrilled to slick, well-designed train epics ever since.

All of which explains why Unstoppable is such an engaging, hell-for-leather experience … even though director Tony Scott and writer Mark Bomback have crafted a manipulative, overwrought, at times laughably melodramatic Hollywood experience in every sense of the phrase.

Doesn’t matter. It’s a train movie, and an impressively mounted one. Surrender your cynical skepticism, sit back and prepare to enjoy the ride, ’cause Scott orchestrates this thriller with the seasoned hand of a master conductor.

Although an opening crawl suggests that the story to follow is “inspired” by actual events, that should be taken with a grain of salt. Bomback’s screenplay is Tinseltown artifice through and through, although it does unfold due to the sort of numb-nuts carelessness that resulted in the October 2008 Metrolink commuter train crash in California, when its engineer distracted himself by texting … and plowed into a freight train, killing himself and 24 other people.

In this big-screen saga, events are kick-started early one morning at the Fuller Train Yard in Wilkins, Pa., when a hostler named Dewey (Ethan Suplee) – irritated when his breakfast is interrupted by an order to move a standing train, the 777, to a different line – attempts a sloppy shortcut that results in the engine and its 39 cars leaving under its own power … with the fail-safe airbrakes disengaged.

This careless nincompoop is played to moronic perfection by Suplee, best remembered as Earl’s doofus brother Randy in TV’s My Name Is Earl. One can’t help wondering why Dewey isn’t shackled and tossed into jail long before this film hits its edge-of-the-seat climax; one of Scott’s minor miscalculations is to keep Dewey around, with no indication that his jaw-droppingly poor judgment would make him a pariah with everybody else at the yard.

Let’s put it this way: If Dewey in any way represents the intelligence level of rank-and-file union workers in a train yard – and the texting incident cited above suggests he might – then thousands of train commuters are placing their lives in the hands of idiots on a daily basis.

But I digress.

Elsewhere, 200 miles down the line, veteran brakeman Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) begins his day with rookie conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine). Tension brews immediately; Will is a recent “political hire” brought in at a lower pay grade, while seasoned pros like Frank are getting pink-slipped.
Although laid-back and secure in his skills, Frank isn’t above poking at Will; the younger man, no doubt perceiving his role in the “changing of the guard” only too well, is quick to take offense.

Both actors are well cast to their own type. At this stage in his career, Washington owns this sort of role; Frank’s economical comments and mildly impatient retorts are delivered with the just-indulgent-enough manner of a parent forced (once again!) to correct a headstrong child. Frank radiates confidence and resourcefulness because Washington does the same.

Pine contributes the brash, headstrong fire that he injected into his portrayal of the young James T. Kirk in last year’s re-boot of Star Trek. (Rest assured, Pine’s gorgeous baby-blue eyes are granted plenty of exposure, as well.) Will is impatient and mildly careless, but – and this is important – intelligent enough to acknowledge his mistakes, and learn from them. The resulting dynamic is perfectly staged: a prickly beginning that leaves room for the sort of bonding prompted by a crisis.

And “crisis” is the operative word, as the 777 gathers speed and becomes, in the needlessly overwrought words of railway yard chief Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), “a missile the size of the Chrysler Building.”

Naturally, this being a Tony Scott movie, it’s not enough that the train is a mere runaway. It also happens to be pulling several cars laden with highly toxic and flammable contents, and of course it’s soon to reach a sharp curve sandwiched by refinery tanks in a densely populated city.

And while the prickly old guard/new hire dynamic between Frank and Will should have been enough interpersonal drama, it isn’t. Frank, still mourning the loss of his wife, is mildly estranged from his two teenage daughters; Will has been served with a restraining order that prevents contact with his wife and young son, thanks to an argument gone awry.

Goodness, folks; could you ladle it on any thicker?

Doesn’t matter, really. Once the nature of this story becomes clear – as we realize that Frank and Will, aboard the tough ol’ 1206, somehow will get involved with an improbable “rescue” mission – the rest becomes mere frippery.

Scott has based his entire career on noisy action films, and he’s certainly in familiar territory here, demonstrating the relentless power of physics and momentum as the hurtling 777 makes kindling out of everything from horse vans to occasional railroad cars. Rest assured, this story finds plenty of reasons for the 777 to destroy stuff; when that isn’t enough, a few stray police cars also find an excuse to crash into each other.

Yes, it’s all coldly calculated, in the manner of an amusement park thrill ride … but so what? Even if this is Hollywood artifice, watching a beast like the 777 plow into its next “victim” always delivers a heart-stopping jolt.

Unfortunately, Scott and his special-effects team get a bit sloppy at times, “cheating” the runaway train’s supposed speed. Despite some slick work from editors Robert Duffy and Chris Lebenzon, many shots of the 777 clearly show a train that ain’t moving anywhere near as fast as the story demands. That’s sloppy, and Scott loses some of his film’s momentum as a result.

The brand-name product placement also is insufferable. It would appear that various Fox News channels are the only media outlets savvy enough to cover this unfolding disaster, and the relentless use of Fox logos becomes ridiculous; one logo even covers the entire screen, as talking heads deliver a “news break.”

Fortunately, Scott sticks to business most of the time. He seems to have learned from the mistakes made with the excess flourishes that made Domino and Man on Fire so grotesquely unwatchable; in comparison, Unstoppable is a breath of fresh air. At an economical 100 minutes or so, Scott gets the job done and leaves us wanting more.

Unstoppable may be meticulously calculated Hollywood product, through and through … but it’s also one helluva ride.

Besides … it’s a train movie!

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