'Unstoppable' delivers high-octane action and suspense

Movie review

Watching a Tony Scott action movie is like going on an all-protein diet and consuming a steak the size of your head. Who needs side dishes and garnishes when you have the main attraction?

The British-born Scott makes no-nonsense, breathless, muscular movies, and "Unstoppable" promises a runaway train picture and delivers. It's man -- or here, men -- against machine and the story moves as fast as the loco locomotive.

Although it revolves around a man-made disaster and not, say, a twister, earthquake or killer comet, "Unstoppable" relies on the power of personas as did 1970s disaster flicks starring Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Charlton Heston and the like.


3 stars = Good
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pine.
  • Rating: PG-13 for sequences of action and peril, and some language.

Also in keeping with the formula, the movie sees a decent figure -- here a veteran train engineer, with a little help from a young co-worker -- taking charge and trying to ensure the safety of friends, family and strangers alike.

"Unstoppable," loosely inspired by real events outside Toledo in 2001, stars Denzel Washington as Frank, an engineer with 28 years of experience, and Chris Pine as Will, a conductor on the job just four months.

They are a classic mismatched pair -- one black, one white; one older, one younger; one a veteran railroader, one a newbie; one the father of two college-age daughters who waitress at Hooters, the other a dad to a little boy; one just a faceless working guy, the other a union rep thanks to family connections.

But in the course of 90-odd minutes and one looming catastrophe, they will be given the chance to bicker, bond and use their brains and bravery to try to defy the callow corporate suits and stop an unmanned train that was accidentally set loose.

What is at first mistakenly assumed to be a "coaster" is actually a speeding train, the beastly No. 777, carrying toxic and combustible materials and moving like a rocket through densely populated areas of Pennsylvania.

And if ever there was a breaking news story, this is it, with choppers swooping dangerously close to the action and reporters (look for Mike Clark and Ellen Gamble, among others) providing play-by-play.

"Unstoppable," filmed largely in Pennsylvania and Ohio, clatters along on a track of hyperbole: "We're talking about a missile the size of the Chrysler Building! ... I'm not risking this company just because some engineer wants to play hero. ... We're gonna run this bitch down."

Things move at hyper speed here, including the way the Fox TV stations (in keeping with the parent company releasing the movie) obtain, confirm and broadcast names of people in the news. Residents who should be evacuating instead line the tracks as if waiting for a Steelers victory parade.

In a minor distraction, the movie identifies areas of the state as "Southern Pennsylvania" or "Northern Pennsylvania" when commonwealth residents use more specific identifiers such as Southwestern. Of course the picture gets credit for slipping "jagoff" into the dialogue.

"Unstoppable" taps into the audience's affection for and confidence in Mr. Washington and growing fondness for Mr. Pine, whose conductor must be nearly as indestructible as his Kirk in "Star Trek." True, their characters' back stories could fit into a thimble, but no one likely will mind, and making the yardmaster a woman (Rosario Dawson) is a welcome touch.

What moviegoers really want to see are crazy stunts, speeding trains, fiery explosions, near or actual collisions, and Mr. Scott delivers with real engines and cars, not computer-generated models that always have a whiff of artificiality.

In the end, you may be like those imperiled children on a field trip who know that when you get to a railroad crossing you should "Stop, look and listen." Until the closing credits, that is.

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her Mad About the Movies blog at post-gazette.com/movies. First Published November 12, 2010 5:00 AM


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