“In training they give you an F. Out here you get killed.”
When was the last time you saw a good train movie? There have been a few classics. Most of the best merely happened on a train with the drama having to do with what was happening on the train. I can’t really remember when I saw a good train film where a train itself was the source of the tension. Yes, there have been several films where terrorists hijack a train and threaten something bad if their demands weren’t met. But in Unstoppable, the threat really is just the train. There’s no political agenda at all going on here. It’s really quite a clever threat when you think about it. The train doesn’t “want” anything. It’s powered by its own laws of “nature” and can’t be talked down or reasoned with in any way. There’s no emotion to get in the way. It just drives forward at its own pace. It doesn’t care what is in front of it or what it’s left behind. It merely is. In fact, Unstoppable can be a metaphor for runaway technology, the machine that can’t be stopped. What a rather nice old-school device for one of society’s deepest philosophical quandaries.
The script is inspired by an actual event, but we all know what that means. Still it’s a nail-biter script with a keen pace. Frank (Washington) is a 26-year veteran of the railway. He’s on his way out, however. He’s been downsized and is riding out, literally, his final three weeks. On this day his partner is rookie Will (Pine). Will is young and likely got his job by having the right last name. It’s not going to endear him to the old-timers who are being pushed out. The two are assigned to engine 1206. It looks like a pretty routine day, but both are dealing with personal problems. Will is in a legal jam, and his wife is leaving him. On top of that he’s missing a court date where he’s trying to defend a restraining order keeping him from seeing his kids. Frank is trying to raise two daughters who are just turning into women. His relationship is somewhat strained, and he just forgot his youngest daughter’s birthday. It’ll be a tough time getting through a routine day.
But this day isn’t going to be routine. A mistake at the yard sends train 777 heading down the tracks with no one on board to drive her. The air brakes aren’t connected, so the dead-man’s switch isn’t going to stop her. At first it’s believed to be merely a coaster. The plan is to catch up, jump on board, and bring her under control. But before long the train is doing speeds close to 70 MPH and heading through populated towns and a date with a dangerous curve next to fuel storage tanks. If that isn’t enough, the train is pulling canisters of a toxic and combustible chemical. If the train doesn’t slow down before reaching that curve, it’s going to be a hot time in the old town tonight.
When the company appears to be incompetent to stop the impending disaster, Frank and Will decide to chase down the train and attempt to stop it. Gavin (Dunn) threatens to fire them if they don’t stand down, but it’s tough to fire a guy you already forced out. In the command center supervisor Connie (Dawson) attempts to get the crisis under control, but the bosses keep getting in the way. Now her only hope is that 1206 can catch up, latch on, and slow the train enough to keep it from jumping the tracks.
I originally saw this movie at Christmas time with my mother-in-law. She was visiting from the holidays but lives in Central Pennsylvania (at least for now) and was interested in seeing the movie because of the filming locations in and around that area. Of course, the action is zipping by so quickly that she was in for a disappointment on that score. There were the hoped-for glimpses of the familiar, but little else to reward that motivation. I had lived in that area for five years, so was somewhat interested in the terrain as well. What I lost out on in fly-by scenery I more than gained with the movie itself.
Tony Scott is quite an old pro at this sort of thing, and he certainly did this one right. His most important move wasn’t actually the cast. He decided to use real trains throughout and avoid the all too common computer-generated cheat that most directors would have used. He derails a real train. It’s the first time that’s ever been done on film, and the effect is startling. As much as CGI can bring us to places we’ll never really see for ourselves, there are serious limitations when our expectations are reinforced with experience. While most of us have never witnessed an actual train derailment before, and hopefully never will, we do have real world references that shape our expectations. Scott is well aware of these expectations. The truth is, it cost him less to do it for real, and the result goes beyond convincing. These are real trains, often traveling at high speed. The result is a film that sucks you into the drama from very nearly the first ten minutes. You can expect a lot of his trademark stunts. There’s plenty of things crashing into each other. Tony Scott also loves helicopters, and I think he uses about 689 of them in this movie. They are literally everywhere. When Tony Scott’s at the helm you can expect he’s brought along a whole chest of fun toys to play with.
Denzel Washington has worked with Tony Scott before. He’s even been in a train film very recently, the remake The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3, also with Tony Scott. You might wonder why the duo would want to collaborate on another train film so soon. The answer, of course, is that these are very different films. As I mentioned in my opening thoughts here, there is no human agenda driving the threat. In Pelham, the villain was Travolta’s Ryder character, and the drama involved a contest of wills. Washington has an entirely different situation here.
Washington does well as the mentor here. I suspect we’re going to see more and more of those kinds of roles as the actor himself ages. He has that self-assured confidence that grizzled veterans in any field often have. He also has that quiet impatience when things go wrong. He uses those skills to good advantage here. Chris Pine might be best known as the new Captain Kirk. Here he has to be a bit more subtle. There’s no channeling the shtick of Shatner. It was really my first chance to see him in a role of this much weight. He shares good chemistry with Washington. What was most effective is how these guys delivered on the evolution of the relationship. It evolves quickly, but in a believable way. It’s a tough trick, especially when you consider the film is not shot chronologically. It’s really a testament to these actors being able to completely thrive in the moment.
While the action on the train might be the pivotal focus, there are some other solid performances that help to keep this film from being too one-dimensional. Rosario Dawson brings conviction and strength to the Connie character. Her nemesis is not really the runaway train. She has to deal with corporate bosses who always think they have the answers and are too dismissive of their employees. Kevin Dunn appears to get these kinds of roles quite often. Scott has a way of getting the most out of every person on the screen. This one is no exception.
Of course, there are plenty of thrills to go around. Scott doesn’t just bring the toys. He uses them up. I’ve already mentioned a real derailed train. Many of the stunts involve incredible choreography of trucks matching speed with trains so guys can jump between them. There are guys hanging from helicopters trying to get on the train. When something ends up on the track, like a horse trailer, the result is predictable. Scott is going to send his beast straight through, leaving a wake of debris and fire in its wake. There’s little computer trickery here. You can’t help but get sucked in. This is a better movie than its $81 million box office might suggest. It lost money, but this train never loses steam. Check it out.
Unstoppable is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 35 mbps. The image is a very natural one. I’ve lived in the area, and the image presentation absolutely captures the environment well. A lot of the action is fast-paced, and the image keeps up without any issues. Colors are natural with the deep red of the runaway train looking rather sinister in contrast with the yellows and whites of the hero train. Detail is high. The film has a lot of texture that allows you to experience the rather gritty realism of the train yard and the engine room of the train itself. Black levels aren’t really an issue much on the film but deliver some solid shadow definition. You will definitely get the industrial feel of the movie and its machines.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 delivers a very solid audio presentation. The surrounds keep you in the action. Scott populates his film with all kinds of flying machines and rolling dinosaurs, and the surround mix keeps them all perfectly placed so that you’ll have an audio as well s visual reference for all the action. Of course, your subs really play a crucial part here. When the trains are into the forced braking, you will literally feel the power of these hundred-ton machines. The score is often exhilarating but generally stays out of the way. Dialog comes through every time. By the time this movie is over, you’ll feel like you’ve really experienced the sound of all of that steel grinding and rolling on steel. There are some subtle animal sounds mixed into the runaway train that effectively makes this “beast” feel as though it’s alive. Excellent sound design all the way around…literally.
There is an Audio Commentary with Tony Scott. He brings the enthusiasm for all of the “toys” to the track. He doesn’t express it with a very animated tone, but you can tell it’s there all the same. There’s plenty of scene specific discussion where Scott goes into quite a lot of detail about the challenges and logistics.
All of the extras are in HD.
The Fastest Track – Unleashing Unstoppable: (29:41) The piece starts with script development and follows a pretty linear path through the film’s production. All of the major players participate. Of course, there’s a lot of talk and behind-the-scenes footage of the trains and stunts.
Derailed – Anatomy Of A Scene: (10:01) This is a close look at the train they derailed. You get to see it from all angles.
Hanging Off The Train – Stunt work: (14:25) This is a typical look at the various stunts for the film. They seem surprised that no one was hurt except one guy jumping into the truck from the train, but not seriously.
On The Rails With Director And Cast: (13:25) Scott, Washington, Pine and Dawson sit in a rail yard and talk informally about their experiences making the film. Washington looks a bit tired here but gets more animated toward the end.
Unstoppable will fill all of your adrenaline needs and still offer you a nice piece of character drama as well. I actually liked it better the second time through. I wasn’t so focused on the background. There was a lot to pick up on as I watched it again. So this is more than just a rental. You should think about picking this one up for your permanent collection. Non-stop runaway action is what you’re in for. After all, “That’s how it is at the retirement home”.