As time wore on, and the film’s release grew nearer, the first few reviews became available. These reviews, from mostly reputable sources, were largely positive. “This is Scott’s best film in years,” they said. So, when the invite for a press screening of the movie hit my inbox, I figured I’d give the flick a try. How bad could it really be? Tony Scott, while definitely fallible, is the guy responsible for Top Gun and True Romance (a film I adore, by the way). Denzel Washington can be great, when he wants to be. And Chris Pine! He was so cool in Star Trek! Maybe I was just in a bad mood when I saw the trailer. This movie might be awesome!
F@&% YOU, CRITICS! YOU LIED TO ME!
Unstoppable is, indeed, stupid, a trait best exemplified by its ludicrous plot. When an operator decides it would be a good idea to jump out of a moving train to make a track adjustment (and then just run really fast to catch up and jump back on – of course), the locomotive takes off and begins speeding down the track with no one on board. We soon learn that not only is the train really big and really fast, but it’s also hauling tons of flammable and toxic chemicals that will poison the whole city if the train crashes. When they learn that their train is travelling on the same track as the runaway, veteran engineer and rookie conductor Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) and Will Colson (Chris Pine), respectively, decide to chase it down. They plan to catch up to the train, attach their own engine to it and then use their onboard brake-system to stop it.
Purportedly based on a true story, Unstoppable is an interesting concept. It’s the type of thing that would make a nice piece on 60 Minutes or as the plot of an episode of a TV action-drama. This concept, on its own, cannot carry an entire feature film though. There just isn’t enough there. So, while Washington and Pine give it all they’ve got and deliver solid performances – and are supported by a really great turn from Rosario Dawson as the dispatcher guiding them through their mission – the film devolves into a 90-minute exercise in fantastic coincidence.
You see, trains travel on tracks, so there is no surprise as to where it’s going to go next. It’s going to travel down the track. Eventually, the train will hit a sharp turn, derail and the movie will be over – unless our buddies on the other train are able to catch up and stop it. That’s all. There really isn’t that much tension because there are only two possible scenarios, and since this is a movie, we already know which one will prevail.
So, in order to ramp up the suspense, instances of ridiculousness are inserted into the script. One example: a truck hauling a trailer filled with horses just happens to get into an accident right as it’s crossing the tracks, leaving the horses stuck on the track as the train hurdles towards them. In another scene, a pickup truck tries to catch up to the train so it’s passenger can jump onto the locomotive, but, alas, they hit a pole just before they reach the train’s cabin.
While adding these meaningless set-pieces is necessary to extend the runtime of a shallow story, it brings nothing to the film and ultimately devalues the main conflict. By the time I was faced with the movie’s climax, I had already given up and no longer cared. I just wanted the train to crash and burn (as the movie had) so I could finally go home.