I was apprehensive about Unstoppable, despite the talent involved. Tony Scott is an excellent filmmaker. Denzel Washington, despite playing a limited range of characters, is a powerful force. And although I've only seen Chris Pine in two features to date (Star Trek, Carriers), I'm quickly becoming a fan. But I had serious doubts about Unstoppable's subject matter. A runaway train? That sounds like a problem. Toxic waste on board? Well that's horribly inconvenient. School kids on the track? Alright, let's tone it down just a bit.
As it turns out, Unstoppable is based on a true story. And it's not even one of those instances where a filmmaker takes the tiniest detail and creates an elaborate, larger-than-life story around it. Back in 2001, an unmanned train tore through Ohio at around 50 miles per hour. And sure enough, it was carrying thousands of gallons of molten phenol, a toxic ingredient used in paints and dyes. And better yet, the two men who stopped the train were a 31-year veteran engineer (much like Denzel Washington's Frank Barnes) and a conductor with one year of experience (much like Chris Pine's Will Colson). So, with an actual larger-than-life incident as his story, Tony Scott did what he does best: made an effective thriller.
Scott has a talent for making you believe there's more danger than actually exists. Through years of watching movies, we have a developed an ability to immediately distinguish what characters can die. A lot of times, we can tell within the first ten minutes of a movie who's expendable and who's not. Scott is good at suspense. He interferes with our death sense and makes us believe that anything is possible. If you really try hard and pull yourself out of the movie, you can make an accurate analysis. But you won't want to do that, because Unstoppable is a hell of a lot of fun. And while you're along for the ride, you will believe that bad things can - and will - happen.
Unstoppable may not have the same impact as Jaws did with beaches, but it did make me somewhat wary of trains. The title of the film is appropriate. These are large steel beasts, and as Frank warns us, if a large enough train is going the right speed, it will vaporize anything in its path. Maybe I shouldn't have said I was wary of trains themselves, but rather the tracks that they blow past on.
Tony Scott is a skilled filmmaker. He takes a premise that could have been absurd in the hands of a lesser director and manages to make something exciting and worthwhile out of it. It may not be his best film, but it's near the top, and it's much better than his first film that involved Denzel Washington and a train.
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