“Based on true events,” Unstoppable is the latest all-action behemoth from Tony Scott, and another involving a rampaging train after last year’s The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3. Denzel Washington is back again, swapping the control centre for railroad overalls, and quickly becomes the only hope for saving the town of Stanton from near destruction. While Washington’s character Frank Barnes and rookie conductor Will Coulson (Pine) collect their day’s train and cargo for transport, across state, two careless trainyard workers let a half-mile long locomotive out of their grasp. When the driver jumps out to flick a line switch, failing to fully engage the brakes, the train starts to accelerate, quickly powering off into the distance. Accelerating every second, the runaway, it turns out, is carrying a mixed cargo of diesel fuel and hazardous chemicals, leaving few options to reign in the speeding bullet before it causes some serious trouble.
Racing to reach an inlet before the oncoming locomotive mows them down, Barnes and Coulson have the only shot of slowing down the train before it detrails in Stanton into a ball of flames. Needing to catch up to it in reverse and attempt to couple at 70mph, it’s literally a race against time, but even with Barnes at the wheel, the unenviable task is still a near impossible feat, and will go down to the wire as to whether they can pull it off.
Like a lot of director Tony Scott’s recent films, Unstoppable certainly has it’s moments but is near fatally undone by a lot of his style and narrative misgivings. In taking so many words above to explore the plot I might have oversold it. There’s a runaway train and two hopeful heroes chase it down in an attempt to save the day. You’ll spend most of the film merely watching each train chug along at high speeds, which even over the fairly short 98-minute running time, feels stretched. The same shots of rampaging wheels and swooping helicopter pans are used time and again, the latter produced with very questionable CGI, meaning it doesn’t really feel like the film is going anywhere.
Denzel Washington and Chris Pine do everything asked of them by the linear and wafer thin script, but they’re undermined by Tony Scott’s vision. The unsubtle soundtrack of pounding hard rock combined with quick-cuts and Scott’s very direct style of production serve to create a certain feeling of pace and impending catastrophe but without even an ounce of tension it all feels so superfluous you’ll never feel at risk for the characters. Unstoppable feels like you’re watching a re-run where you already know the result, not like a live event that plays out before your eyes, which given the heavy reliance on fake TV news reports for exposition, was so obviously the intention.
As a mindless thrill-ride, Unstoppable serves to entertain but it’s severely undermined by the frustrating and one-track direction. There’s no doubting Tony Scott can do much better; Enemy Of The State had more tension in any single scene than all of Unstoppable combined, while Man On Fire posseses the grit and tone so unforgivably lacking here. Unstoppable isn’t a bad film per-se, but it’s a by the numbers thriller that isn’t remotely thrilling, and will do very well indeed to make back its remarkable $100m budget.