I'm sort of sorry that I skipped Tony Scott's Unstoppable in the theatres, because the runaway train movie is a combustible nailbiter that is big and loud and deserves to be seen as such. I was a doubter, I just didn't believe that this action picture could be any good. Man, was I wrong.
The plot of Unstoppable, which was based on an actual incident about ten years ago, is as straightforward as it seems. Worker incompetence leads to a locomotive hauling hazardous chemicals to escape from a Pennsylvania railyard with no driver and no remote emergency brakes. At the same time, a grouchy veteran (Denzel Washington) and a rookie (Chris Pine) are starting their day, picking up their cargo and going on their way. This puts them on a direct course with the unmanned vehicle, which is bigger than they are and traveling at unsafe speeds for a machine of its heft. Attempts to stop the train by the company all fail--this is one of those days (and one of those movies) where everything that can go wrong will go wrong, just to make sure you are as tense and knotted up as possible. Rosario Dawson serves as the hub for the rescue efforts, working between the company headquarters, where greedy execs would rather do what costs them the least amount of money that what is smart, and the guys on the tracks. Eventually, Washington and Pine take matters into their own hands and pull a daring feat to keep the high-speed projectile from crashing into the city where their families live. If they don't, the rig full of explosive cargo will plow through a fuel storage field and kaboom! Everyone for miles will be dead!
I kid you not, the deck is that stacked against our heroes, but Unstoppable moves so fast and is so much fun that you won't get much chance to fret over how ridiculous it kind of is. I laughed a couple of times when movie clichés like instantly exploding vehicles or, I'm not kidding, a horse trailer stranded on the tracks showed up, but I had barely finished my guffaw before Scott (Top Gun, Crimson Tide) and screenwriter Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) were already on to the next thing. Unstoppable is effective entertainment, and once it is out of the gate, it lives up to its title. This one is all about forward momentum. Characterization is limited to the petty problems the players bring to work with them, all of which will seem small by the end. This is life and death, son, think about what matters.
Predictably, Denzel is charmingly gruff, and Pine is the put-upon guy who could learn a lesson or two, an earthbound ancestor of his Captain Kirk role in the Star Trek reboot. Rosario Dawson is smart and efficient as mission control, easily dispensing with the exposition she is saddled with. Unstoppable is a movie where the lead actors are all largely confined to single spaces and playing second fiddle to crashes and explosions, and it helps that all the performers here are working at a craft level that is above the stripped-down material.
Tony Scott is a director who has a hard time controlling himself. I haven't tried watching one of his movie's since 2005's Domino. I found it to be such a stylistic pile-up, I didn't even finish it. He loves an emphatic zoom and cutting one stunt together from multiple repetitious angles. He overdoes it here and there in Unstoppable, goofing around when it's not really necessary, but for the most part, I give him credit for his restraint this time around. Working with real trains and real stunt men rather than being overly reliant on fake-out CGI gives the film an immediacy that few action films have these days. Unstoppable is the reason someone invented the term "thrill ride." Load this movie in and let it go.
Fox has a habit of sending blue-backed promo discs of their movies for us to review. These discs are watermarked and don't generally reflect the final retail product--something that is good in the case of Unstoppable. If this preview disc is any indication of what the store-bought version will look like, it's pretty bad. The image here has a lot of digital enhancement, with splotchy colors and lots of flickering. It's rare that a movie would look this poorly executed on DVD in 2011, so I am guessing this is not going to be the case; even so, I am withholding any star ranking until I see otherwise.
On the other hand, the 5.1 audio is loud and rumbly and full of punch, and if this is what the actual disc will sound like, then bring it on! The volume goes mega without any distortion, and then it drops down at the right moments for effect, all without missing a hitch.
There are also stereo tracks in French and Spanish, and subtitles in Spanish and English SDH.
Tony Scott provides the usual full-length audio commentary, talking about how the movie was made, sharing production stories, etc. It's predictable, but good. More surprising is the second alternate audio track, "Tracking the Story: Unstoppable Script Development," cobbling together recordings of script meetings between the director and writer Mark Bomback. They talk through the script and the various details of the different scenes and characters, working out how best to tell their story. It's a frank glimpse at how a screenplay gets banged around and a narrative gets shaped. There are a thousand little decisions to make, and they try to lay the audio over the movie so the cuts are as close to scene specific as possible. (Interesting tidbit learned right away: They viewed the train as analogous to the shark in Jaws. Least surprising revelation: "She's a woman in a man's world.")
The single half-hour featurette "The Fastest Track: Unleashing Unstoppable" is actually pretty interesting. It's got the expected talking heads being interviewed about the movie, but it's also full of raw footage showing how the movie was filmed, including mobile camera units and the stunt construction.
Four trailers/commercials are also included, none of which are for the main feature.
Highly Recommended. Unstoppable is excellent fun, a thrilling action movie that delivers a good time without being too heavy but also without swinging the other way and insulting anyone's intelligence. Featuring a likable cast and an endless array of exciting stunts, it's a pure kick of adrenaline and well worth popping a big tub of popcorn for.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joëlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.