When it’s not too busy trying to make you think or create bogus tension, “Unstoppable,” about a runaway train on a collision course with doom, is a nerve-wracking and well-made popcorn film. At its heart, it’s essentially a buddy cop movie, adorned with its most integral cliché: a rookie, Will Colson (Chris Pine) and a veteran, Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), thrown together, each of them with marriages of varying degrees of success and beautiful children.
Watching the series of mistakes and bad breaks that sends this runaway locomotive hurdling down the track, you can almost hear Malcolm Gladwell calmly trying to scare the crap out of you:
Over the past few years, a group of scholars has begun making the unsettling argument that … high-technology accidents may not have clear causes at all. They may be inherent in the complexity of the technological systems we have created.
Unfortunately, director Tony Scott and screenwriter Mark Bomback succumbed to another buddy cop convention: the resentment between the two men that must be overcome if they are to save the day. Having Washington and Pine hate each other wasn’t just a lazy choice, it was a dumb one. Audiences love both these guys, and once they stop pretending to hate each other, they establish a great rapport (when it’s two dudes it’s “rapport,” when it’s a guy and a girl it’s “chemistry).
Rather than resent Frank for telling him what to do, Will should’ve just shut his pie hole and opened his ears, cuz if there’s a train hurtling down the tracks on a collision course with disaster, nobody—nobody—is better equipped to deal with it. Just ask the straphangers he saved on the Pelham 1-2-3.
There is perhaps only one man on Earth who knows more about trains, and that's Inspector Werner, played to hilarious effect by Kevin Corrigan. Seeing him as a government official sent to teach kids about train safety is just funny. Watching him try to play it straight as he reveals a Rain Man-esque knowledge of train safety and mechanics is hilarious. Whether it’s intentional isn’t clear, but who cares?
All three of Tony Scott’s favorite effects are on display here, each used to maximum effect:
- The Jiggly Camera: so often it you see used and it does little more than give you motion sickness (see: Zone, Green) but it induces the bone-rattling experience of bouncing along the tracks at 70 miles-per-hour with this iron horse of death.
- Over-Saturated Colors: Tony Scott’s color palette + Chris Pine’s bottomless blue eyes = magic.
- Denzel Washington: There are few actors his age that can play a character this ordinary and make him so likable, while possessing a measure of gravitas.
Unfortunately, “Unstoppable,” like so many other films these days, tries to deliver a message—greedy corporations are bad!—when all we really want to do is watch Washington and Pine try to stop “8 freight cars of hazardous chemicals--We’re not just talking about a train, we’re talking about a missile the size of the Chrysler Building!” Which frankly is a lot more fun.