In ‘Unstoppable,’ it’s full speed ahead
The word “cinema’’ derives from kinema, the Greek word for “motion.’’ All it means is that movies should move, and that when all is said and done we pay our five cents or 10 dollars to be transported by the illusion of objects hurtling through space. This is why there are so many trains in movies, from 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery’’ on, and this is why “Unstoppable,’’ whose sole premise is right there in the title, works like a well-oiled charm. There’s a train. It can’t be stopped. What else do you really need to know?
Just to gild the lily, this runaway train is carrying 39 cars of toxic goo straight across the countryside toward a nasty curve at the bridge in Stanton, Pa., pop. 10,000 or so. The throttle is stuck wide open and the air brakes have malfunctioned. Oh, and there’s a trainload of 150 schoolchildren up ahead. How the filmmakers resisted hiring Taylor Swift for a cameo as a cancer patient tied to the tracks is beyond me.
Instead, we’ve got Denzel Washington — in his fifth film for director Tony Scott and his second on a train after last year’s “The Taking of Pelham 123’’ — as Frank Barnes, an engineer with 28 years on the job. Of course he’s about to retire. Of course he’s stuck with a hotheaded rookie partner in Will Colson (Chris Pine of “Star Trek’’). And of course they’re the only ones out there on the line with the know-how and guts to save central Pennsylvania from atomization (or a nasty cough; it’s never quite clear).
This is a preposterous story line, pure B-movie junk food, and the fact that it actually happened — in 2001, in Ohio — is frosting on an already tasty Ring Ding. Scott and screenwriter Mark Bomback dig into that heartland realism: The characters are all working stiffs, from the lazy rail yard schmoe (Ethan Suplee) who sets the catastrophe in motion to the company’s designated troubleshooter, Ned (Lew Temple), a mouthy sparkplug whose haircut announces that the 1970s never ended. Even the movie’s villain, a high-up suit at headquarters (Kevin Dunn), used to be a yardman.
True, in no possible universe would a railway nerve-center dispatcher look like Rosario Dawson, an actress about whom your reviewer cannot be, nor ever has been, objective. Her character, Connie, is the one who has to stand in front of all those blinking maps and shout things at Frank and Will over the radio. She’s capable and believably stressed; you’re glad she’s there even if she’s the movie’s one concession to glamour.
Otherwise, “Unstoppable’’ is exactly the kind of movie Tony Scott should make more often: an unabashed genre flick with a job to do and characters bent on doing it. No time for speechifying or macho heroics: This one’s simply about a group of underappreciated professionals taking care of business at 70 miles per hour. Frank and Will aren’t superhuman but flawed and stubborn men; in character terms, they’re the little engines that could.
Still, two guys versus a train — how exciting is that? Surprisingly, very. Scott calls in his skills as a meat-and-potatoes moviemaker, and “Unstoppable’’ is edited for maximum impact without showboating. The central situation sustains the drama and the way it’s filmed, and when that situation is over, so’s the movie. More films should be this enjoyably functional.
Taking a page from Steven Spielberg’s “Duel,’’ “Unstoppable’’ anthropomorphizes the runaway train where it can, using camera angles and the sound mix to create the “character’’ of an arrogant fume-belching behemoth that bisects all the human busy-ness — news copters and cop cars and our heroes driving backward as fast as they can — in a clean and vicious line.
The runaway’s assigned number? 777, as close to the devil as you can get without giving away the game. “Unstoppable’’ gives that devil its due.