Movie Review: Unstoppable
By Matthew Huntley
November 18, 2010

They've updated The General for the 21st century!

You’d think director Tony Scott would be unable to take such a formulaic, “inspired by true events” story and turn it into something this exciting and nail-biting, but somehow he finds a way. By the end of Unstoppable, I not only found myself cheering, but also getting a little teary-eyed. Yes, the movie is generic and manipulative, and it doesn’t leave much to the imagination as far as how it will turn out, but its energy and heartfelt performances keep it moving. This is a case where style triumphs over conventionalism.

We get those standard “inspired by true events” subtitles right at the beginning, and they’re referring to the 2001 “Crazy Eights” train from Walbridge, Ohio that drove itself unmanned for two hours, going as fast as 45 mph and carrying a toxic substance called molten phenol. It was a relatively low-profile event for those of us not living in or around Walbridge, but it was obviously big enough to inspire a Hollywood screenplay.

Unstoppable, of course, ups the ante on the real-life circumstances and tosses in some basic thriller conventions for dramatic effect. The movie takes place in Pennsylvania, between the towns of Fuller and Scranton, where Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) and Will Colson (Chris Pine) are working together for the first time. Frank is a veteran railroad engineer and Will a rookie conductor. There’s already some friction between the two since Frank believes Will got his job because of his family name and not his skills.

After a routine car pickup, they receive word about an unmanned train heading their way on the same track. The runaway train is without a failsafe breaking system after a neglectful yard employee failed to secure the air brakes and foolishly left the locomotive to realign the tracks. By the time he tried to catch up, the train was already going too fast. The kicker is four of its cars are carrying molten phenol, a highly toxic and combustible chemical, which could prove disastrous for a small Pennsylvania town if it crashed.

Dispatcher Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) beseeches her corporate boss (Kevin Dunn) to derail the train in a remote area where no people are around, but corporate believes that would cause too much financial damage and that stock prices would plummet. Their plan is to slow it down by sending another train in front of it and helicopter down a marine to land on it and apply the brakes.

But it wouldn’t be much of a movie if the shortsighted corporate plan worked, which is where Frank and Will come in. I’ll not reveal how these two unlikely heroes attempt to slow the train down, not when the movie relies on the characters’ impromptu strategies and intuition to build suspense. And suspense it does build because we’re not always certain which plans will work and which ones won’t. Like the characters, we’re always hoping and guessing. Despite being able to anticipate the movie’s overall destination, it’s not so obvious how it will get there or how much damage there will be.

It’s the uncertainty of the situation that keeps us interested in Unstoppable, along with the strong performances from Washington, Pine and Dawson, which provide the movie its heart and soul. Mark Bomback’s screenplay gives each character a traditional back story for personality, but they’re genuine enough so we care about them as humans. Frank is a widower who’s been working on the railroads for 28 years. He’s got two daughters (Elizabeth Mathis and Meagan Tandy) and is being forced into early retirement. Will is having marriage problems and faces a restraining order that prevents him from seeing his son, and the hearing, wouldn’t you know, is happening this very day. Connie is level-headed and humane because she thinks about the potential casualties of the situation before her own job. All this is meant to garner our affection, and it mostly succeeds, despite being standard.

Scott’s style is standard, too, and contains his usual trademarks: gritty, high grain imagery; jerky, compulsive camera motion; rapid editing. But this style works in the movie’s favor because it gives it a greater sense of urgency and never lets up. It’s only 98 minutes long, and in that time, it’s always moving and constantly throwing in one plot hurdle after another so we get a better sense of the characters’ frightening ordeal and frustrations. I had a hard time believing the whole event would be so easy to watch on TV and that news crews would be following the train’s every move, not to mention have pictures of the employees to go along with the constant play-by-play, but we allow the movie such compromises in the name of thrilling us.

And that’s what the movie does: it thrills us and allows us to invest our emotions into its conflict and characters. These help make Unstoppable unexpectedly entertaining and gripping, while the actors do a good job of convincing us it’s all happening to real people. That would probably explain where my cheering and teary eyes came from.