Only director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Enemy of the State) would het up a runaway-train movie, a genre already full of testosterone. In Scott's new film Unstoppable, an old dog (Denzel Washington) and a young pup (Chris Pine) race to catch up with an unmanned train heading for catastrophe in their own single-engine locomotive. But this is no Runaway Train, Andrey Konchalovsky's 1985 film full of philosophical purpose. Instead, Unstoppable is full of cloying special effects, unrealistic acts of heroism and Hooters waitresses.
Computer animation allows the train to do things real trains can't ordinarily do, such as dance sideways on the rails, like the circus train in Dumbo, for instance. This is heavy-machinery porn, something Scott usually does very well, but instead of lingering over the big, heavy, greasy surfaces to get the men in the audience's pupil's dilated, Scott, a promiscuous refocusser, uses camera work that seems pulled from World War II combat footage.
Unstoppable's dialogue, by Mark Bomback, is action-movie catechism. How much is the train worth? "One hundred million!" How much does it weigh? "Ten million pounds!" What's the nature of its cargo? "Molten phenol! Very toxic, highly combustible!" To what can it be likened? "A missile the size of the Chrysler building!"
Careening at 70 miles per hour, the half-mile-long train is headed for a precarious S-curve over some dangerous gas tanks. News helicopters buzz around the runaway train, providing an action-movie Greek chorus. Computer animation shows us what will happen should the trains meet, done in the now beloved Taiwanese-newscast style of Apple Action News.
Every Scott film is heavy on the exclamation points, but this one is as worn out as America's rail infrastructure. Rosario Dawson shines as a control-tower boss, but in rooms where experts look at maps and telephone each other, Scott repeats one shot over and over, panning the camera as it is dollied to induce appropriate thematic motion sickness.
Such a speeding monster ought to serve a purpose more interesting than bringing together two diametrically opposed railway workers and forcing them to appreciate their families. Isn't this train—a glowering locomotive bearing the numbers "777"—a symbol of something? Eco-catastrophe? Corporate malfeasance by a thinly veiled version of freight-hauling company CSX?
There's a plot point about layoffs, and we're supposed to think the head executive in the film (Kevin Dunn) is an idiot who only cares about profit, although he does engineer a pretty entertaining rescue by yo-yo-ing a former Marine ("Just back from Afghanistan!") from a helicopter onto the deck.
The moment compares favorably with the finale, as seen in previews, of a hero "actually running," exclaims a newscaster, "on top of the train cars!" As if this hadn't been a feat performed some time before in the history of cinema.
Like Scott, Washington is here to repeat things. "There's only one rule, and one rule only," he says, sagely. But he tells us what happens to those who break that one rule, whatever that rule was: "And he was found in the wreck with his hand upon the throttle, scalded to death by the steam, poor boy."
Like a dose of Ritalin, the movie's editing gets more furious as the audience gets calmer, and Unstoppable never goes completely over the top where it belongs.
'Unstoppable' opens in wide release Friday, Nov. 12.