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Fast-Paced and on Track

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Runaway train films don’t get any better (or any worse, depending on your perspective) than Unstoppable, Tony Scott and Denzel Washington’s fifth collaboration as director and actor, respectively (The Taking of the Pelham 1-2-3, Déjà vu, Man on Fire, Crimson Tide).

With Chris Pine (Captain Kirk from last summer’s Star Trek reboot) capably handling undemanding co-lead duties, an “inspired by true events” tagline to add the necessary amount of verisimilitude to an increasingly implausible storyline, tightly-wound pacing, and a running time under two hours, Unstoppable is a welcome addition to the fall release schedule, where Oscar-bait films and family movies are the norm.

Working from Mark Bomback’s (Race to Witch Mountain, Deception, Live Free or Die Hard) screenplay, Scott wastes little time in setting up the simple, straightforward premise at the center of Unstoppable: a freight train pulling more than twenty cars carrying massive amounts of flammable diesel and toxic chemicals, begins gathering speed and momentum seconds after an irresponsible conductor, Dewey (Ethan Suplee), disregards procedure to switch train tracks.

With nonfunctioning air brakes and a dangerous S-curve near Stanton, a major population center, a disastrous derailment seems all but certain. An ultra-competent, dedicated railway employee, Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), ends up working against her corporate superiors who, as true to form (for the film’s themes and over-obvious subtext) are more concerned about stock prices and insurance claims than saving people.

Unstoppable briefly sketches out the central characters/hero-protagonists, Will Colson (Chris Pine) and Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), a junior conductor and engineer, respectively, before moving on to the action-oriented second and third acts. Animosity quickly surfaces between Colson, an inexperienced conductor, with Barnes, a veteran engineer, over Colson’s union connections and Barnes’ pending early retirement.

That Colson and Barnes eventually overcome their initial antagonism and work together to stop the runaway train and save Stanton isn’t exactly a surprise. We’re in Armageddon/Lethal Weapon territory after all. If Unstoppable is to be believed (and it probably shouldn’t), acting heroically, risking life and limb can help repair any relationship, romantic or familial, no matter how frayed, fractured, or failed. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Colson’s wife and Barnes’ daughters, both Hooters’ employees (how’s that for product placement?) follow their efforts on television, initially with disbelief and later, of course, with pride.

Pine acquits himself well as Colson. There’s little of Pine’s performance of the swaggering, self-confident, egotistical, cocksure Kirk in Colson (he’s everything but). Even when he exchanges verbal barbs with senior railroad employees or with Barnes, it’s reactive and defensive, not assertive or aggressive. Washington predictably delivers a performance as Barnes well inside his comfort range (i.e., self-righteous, forceful, anger-prone). Over a decade-and-a-half working together, Scott hasn’t challenged Washington performance-wise, but that’s exactly what Washington wants from his collaboration with Scott: unchallenging roles in mid-budget, mainstream films.

As for Scott, genre fans will welcome his return to coherent action directing. Although he shoots the opening credits in his patented shaky/blurry cam style, Scott shoots the remainder more traditionally. The fast edits and quick camera moves are still there, but the constant shifts in color stocks and tone present in Scott’s work over the last decade aren’t. Once the train leaves the railroad depot, Unstoppable is all-action-all-the-time, but never descends into Michael Bay-inspired incoherence. If that’s not something to be thankful for, it’s hard to know what is.