Finally, we've found the ideal use for Tony Scott's hyperkinetic, headache-inducing filmmaking style: a movie about a runaway train, barreling through small Pennsylvania towns filled with hardworking, unsuspecting people, at 80 mph. And threatening schoolchildren. Oh, and the train is a half-mile long and it's carrying hazardous material.
Sounds insanely implausible, but that's part of the fun of "Unstoppable": How many layers of danger can they pile on here? Scott starts slowly and steadily cranks up the tension, and given the escalating action, his trademark tricks make sense. The grainy camerawork and various exposures, the snap zooms and quick edits all enhance the incessant sense of motion (and Scott actually tones it down here compared to some of his recent films like "Domino" and "Man on Fire," which were borderline incomprehensible). The train rumbles and growls, rattles and clangs, and we're in the middle of it all — on the tracks, between the wheels, underneath and on top of the cars.
It's overwhelming — but in a good way. And this time of year, when there's so much serious-minded awards bait out there, "Unstoppable" provides a welcome escape.
It also makes you appreciate the substantial, tactile nature of Scott's methods, the lack of computer-generated effects. Those are real people on real trains doing real stunts, and while the premise may sound crazy — or like something out of a star-studded '70s disaster movie — it really happened.
Mark Bomback's script is based on a 2001 incident in Ohio in which a train carrying hazardous cargo traveled 66 miles without a crew. But because this is a movie, the speeds are even faster, the danger is even greater, and there's only one man who can stop it and save all those innocent lives: Denzel Washington.
Yes, Washington is back with Scott for the fifth time (following "Crimson Tide," "Man on Fire," "Deja Vu" and "The Taking of Pelham 123") as engineer Frank Barnes, a 28-year railroading man who's about to be forced into retirement. Alongside him is Chris Pine as Will Colson, a rookie conductor and exactly the kind of guy Frank and the other company veterans resent: young, cheap, and taking the older workers' jobs.
Naturally, these two opposites will not only learn to get along but reach an understanding and work together to avert disaster. Washington brings his usual steadiness and charisma, Pine gets to show off both humor and daring. It's pretty laughable that these guys would find time to chat about their wives, family troubles and regrets while hurrying to stop a massive, errant locomotive, but at least "Unstoppable" makes the effort to flesh out its characters to allow us to, you know, care whether they live or die. (The cutaways to Frank's gorgeous daughters, watching the breaking news unfold while working their shifts as Hooters waitresses, is a bit much, though.)
Frank and Will at first are traveling head-on toward the unmanned behemoth, but once they find a way to avoid it, they decide to take off after the train and try to yank it to a stop from behind (which is how the real accident played out). Along the way, Rosario Dawson guides them and serves as the voice of reason as the traffic supervisor back at headquarters who's watching the mayhem on live television and trying to manipulate the many unwieldy moving parts without getting anyone killed. Dawson is strong, as always, as a confident woman in a predominantly male world.
One bit of warning, though: You may feel exceedingly edgy driving home from "Unstoppable." Just make sure to stop and look both ways at train crossings.
"Unstoppable," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and peril, and some language. Running time: 98 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.