Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Unstoppable" moves like a fast-moving runaway train


Unstoppable (2010)
98 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B +

For a bare premise about a runaway choo-choo, "Unstoppable" sure is an unstoppably entertaining pulse-pounder, kind of like "Speed." And kinetic filmmaker Tony Scott is the right man to conduct it. Denzel Washington is back with Scott for the fifth time playing Pennsylvania engineer Frank Barnes, who's been on the railway for 28 years and is about to be forced into retirement. Alongside him is Will Colson (Chris Pine), a green conductor. Now our working-class heroes have to chase down and derail an unmanned 47-car train. Loaded with toxic chemicals. Traveling at 70 miles per hour and gaining speed. Toward the populated Stanton, PA. News choppers circle the hurtling train overhead. Mark Bomback's script gives us just a little backstory to these characters (Frank is a widower and has trouble connecting with his two college-age daughters, Will is estranged from his wife for rashly suspecting her of cheating). 

But enough with plot . . . from there, it's all about the train (no bad-guy terrorists here), and the anxious tension stays thick and the plot moves relentless like, well, a fast-moving train. Scott finally finds a movie where he can let his shaky camera swoop and zoom endlessly, with his dermatologist close-ups, and boy does he shoot the hell out of this. The director's trademark style actually makes sense here when it's about a train that won't stop. Low-angle shots of the big locomotive loudly hissing by and nearly sideswiping (or actually demolishing) a train filled with school kids or a horse trailer on the railroad are intense and threatening. The sound is also put to effective use with jarring noises of train on track and metal on metal. 

Washington and Pine make a confident, appealing team, convincingly providing humor and feeling. Rosario Dawson is fierce and aggressive as the traffic supervisor making calls and serving as the voice of reason in a male-dominated world/movie. Lew Temple is used as the comic relief playing the welder leading the charge of police to keep the public safe. But Kevin Dunn's corporate honcho is a frustrating cliché and Kevin Corrigan seems out of place as a railroad investigator with sage advice. Simplicity is "Unstoppable's" strength when plausibility isn't, although it's inspired by a real-life incident in 2001, Ohio. With its generally stupid premise, it comes out head-on as a tight, skillful escapist ride. A summer popcorn movie with a winter release, "Unstoppable" is the little thriller that could and will keep your adrenaline pumping. 

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