After a pretty impressive opening weekend, “Unstoppable” was receiving some good word of mouth in regards to how “fun” and “entertaining” the film was. Having now seen it, I realize two things. One, the people saying this are either lying to you or joking with you. Two, when your instincts tell you that a movie about a runaway train that’s apparently “a missile the size of the Chrysler building” sounds kind of dumb, you should follow these instincts. “Unstoppable” is just a silly, lame movie that boils down to a good studio pitch stretched into 90 goofy minutes. It’s “Armageddon” but with a train and a smaller cast.
As I mentioned, “Unstoppable” is the somewhat true story of a train that accelerates out of control with no one on-board driving the thing. I say somewhat true because after some simple Google searches, I discovered the real train that ran away was stopped in about an hour after they got it going 15 miles per hour and some dude jumped on it and pulled the brake, thus saving the day. But this is Hollywood. This is Tony Scott and his apparent muse Denzel Washington. You can’t just have a train get a little bit out of control, slow it to school zone speeds and have someone stop it. Oh no, this train is packing chemicals and it’s going in speeds exceeding 70 mph and it’s headed towards a major city. Oh no! All sorts of things get on the tracks (a train load of kids, cars, two horses in a horse trailer, a really large porcupine or badger) and we hope and pray they get smashed, and sometimes they do, but even that isn’t enough to help this film stay on track.
Washington plays Frank, a surly train man who’s been “railroadin’ for 26 years,” you lil whippersnapper! Said whippersnapper is Will, a dour train driving noob who gets Frank as his supervisor for the day. Frank and his veteran engineers don’t like guys like Will because they’re taking their jobs. Will doesn’t take railroading seriously and sees it as just another job. Frank and Will do not like each other because of this and let’s face it, because if they were buddies the whole time, the only conflict would be stopping the train. But wait! There’s more tacked on conflict! The corporate headquarters is worried about the bottom line and wants to keep the train from derailing because the loss of the train and cargo would be really expensive but railroad supervisor Connie (Dawson) is worried about the people that could be affected. Other ham-fisted issues of social class are offered up to increase tension but they’re just so silly, they do nothing for the film except add to the laugh factor.
But these are issues where the film is at least trying to build something that excites the viewer. What ruined “Unstoppable” for me was a series of silly shots and scenes that kept popping up and making me laugh audibly throughout. For starters, Tony Scott has a way of shooting the mundane that gives it a totally unneeded sense of urgency. Someone washing their hands is quick cut with tense music and every car has to peel away from wherever it is like an outtake from “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Life is simply not this intense, Mr. Scott. Another issue is the constant use of cell phones and radios by characters in the movie. At one point, a truck is traveling at a high speed next to the train in order to do something that will ostensibly stop it. Connie sees the truck because she and everyone at the station are watching the news where the story is unfolding. Recognizing the truck and driver, Connie calls him on his cell phone as he’s driving. He answers and informs her that indeed he is “a little busy right now.” Throughout the film characters call each other at the most inopportune times and the result is eye rolling and hysterical. Don’t even get me started on the scenes where Frank’s daughters watch the events unfold while they’re at work…at Hooters.
“Unstoppable” is just a dumb movie, and that’s fine. It’s nice to veg out and see some blockbuster action onscreen. But for me, there’s a line between when something goes from “summer fun blockbuster” to “wait, what now? That’s dumb” and “Unstoppable” is the latter. Even a silly film like the aforementioned “Armageddon” goes for melodrama and sentimental hero worship, “Unstoppable” is just some dudes and a chick trying to stop a train. Also, the only thing more irksome than Michael Mann apologists is Tony Scott apologists but cinephiles need to wake up. Tony Scott is making some really, really bad movies these days and he’s bringing Denzel down with him. In fact movies like this, “Déjà vu” and “Domino” make me seriously question if there was every anything here at all. Then I re-watch “True Romance” for the twentieth time and realize there once was.