Sunday, February 6, 2011

Unstoppable Movie Review: Denzel Washington is, once again, the Everyman hero

I imagine director Tony Scott making a romantic comedy. There would be truncated establishing scenes with a tense thumping bass-heavy musical score by Harry Gregson-Williams, who has scored all of Scott’s films since Enemy of the State, and each new location would be accompanied by a type-written scrawl in the corner of the frame indicating the place and time: “Female love interest’s house – 8:30pm.” This is how virtually every one of his action films begins, with the typed titles continuing throughout the duration of the film. Why would I have expected anything different from Unstoppable, his latest exercise in loud, clanging, macho action?

Additionally, it bears striking similarity to his last film, the remake The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, another film that stars Denzel Washington as a working class stiff caught up in a contrived action scenario involving trains. This time, instead of a New York City subway dispatcher, he’s a Pennsylvania freight train engineer. And the bad guys aren’t flesh and blood humans, but a runaway train under power and speeding toward the S-curve of Stanton, PA, population 750,000, the on-screen title tells us. If the train reaches that curve (rated safe at 15mph) traveling the full 70mph it has reached, then it will derail, spilling out several cars’ worth of deadly chemicals it’s hauling and creating the worst public health disaster in state history.

What else can screenwriter Mark Bomback throw in? How about a train loaded with school children, innocently on their way to the freight yard for an exciting lecture from a federal regulator (Kevin Corrigan) and answering a teacher’s questions while on board? Did Bomback and Scott think that any audience member would believe they would kill a train full of kids? If not, then what’s the point of setting up a conflict that’s meant to produce heightened tension if everyone knows what the outcome will be? Besides, if the trains actually collided 15 minutes in, there’d be no more movie. All we get out of it is a mildly heart-pumping near miss.

The first scenes jump back and forth between two storylines that will inevitably meet in the middle somewhere along the rail lines. There’s the freight yard where Triple 7 (the designation of the runaway train) originates and the downstate yard where Frank (Washington) and Will (Chris Pine), the archetypical veteran and rookie, are starting their morning by hauling freight up north. The experienced versus inexperienced dichotomy in the locomotive is just one of the many instances of manufactured drama in Unstoppable. Frank has already been forced into early retirement while his younger counterpart is stepping in (he’s related to one of the top union bosses, which only adds fuel to the fire) and taking a job away from some middle-aged worker with twenty-five or thirty years on the job.

The level of discord between Frank and Will is not nearly as pronounced as it is between Will and a colleague and friend of Frank’s, who glares at Will and has a few unkind words to share. Don’t be surprised to find that this man, due to the screenplay setting him up as the film’s only human villain, is expendable. As if this were not enough to sustain the on-screen tension, Frank and Will are each provided back stories, ostensibly to add depth to their characters and make us care more about their respective fates. Frank is a widower with two grown daughters working to pay their way through college. He’s recently missed calling one of them on her birthday which leads to her shunning him on the telephone. Will there be a reconciliation as he hurtles himself toward a potential fiery wreck?

Will has the more complicated background. Recently estranged from his wife and young son for an altercation resulting from jealousy, he’s just trying to make ends meet while he winds his way through the court system to have a restraining order lifted. Just to make things as tense as possible, where do you suppose his family lives? That’s right – in Stanton, PA, the city that will turn into a chemical wasteland if they don’t succeed in stopping the runaway Triple 7.

The film has the “inspired by true events” tag at the beginning. Don’t let this mislead you. For what exactly does “inspired by” mean? It could mean I read a story about a train derailment and was inspired to write this screenplay. Well, in this case there is a bit more than a tenuous connection to actual events, which involved a runaway train in Ohio reaching speeds up to 47mph – a far cry from the 80 reached in Unstoppable. One of the ways it tries to be true-to-life is in its abundant use of the 24-hour news cycle coverage of the story. There’s a news helicopter that follows the train. Action and development scenes are intercut with news broadcasts that feature info-graphics that strike me as far too elaborate to have been put together in the time allowed by the events depicted on screen, interviews with experts who talk like they’re the hero in their own action film, and a news company that is able to ascertain very quickly the names of the principle railroad employees involved. That is unless the railroad gave out the names, not only of the two engineers trying to stop the runaway, but also of the man responsible in the first place. This seems highly unlikely.

Admittedly, for all the contrivances that drive the story and the utter conventionality of the plot and Scott’s direction, the film is ably supported by strong lead performances. Washington, always a stalwart actor, even in the roles like this one that seem to require a minimal amount of effort, is charismatic enough to make us believe in and care about Frank. Pine (more interesting in Star Trek, where he had to match the wit and charisma of a young William Shatner) also has a strong blend of charisma and no-nonsense attitude. But it’s the supporting role of Connie, played by Rosario Dawson, the freight yard supervisor who initially tries to orchestrate the stopping of the runaway train, that makes all the non-action scenes work. Mercifully, she’s not supplied any back story, but Dawson is a convincing actress, even if she’s slightly miscast. I have trouble imagining her in the blue collar position of a train yard coordinator. Still, she and the other lead actors help keep the movie’s head just above the water’s surface.

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