Unstoppable is, simply, one of the best action movies in years. It reminds me of the great action movies made in the 1970s about down-to-earth guys who were called upon to do extraordinary things like The French Connection or Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. In the 80s, action films were taken over by the Big Dumb Hero played by guy like Stallone or Schwarzenegger. These days, of course, they're pretty much CGI fests, including smart and entertaining movies like Inception. One thing I planned to do when I saw Unstoppable was to compliment it's intelligent and restrained use of CGI but I've since found out that it has zero CGI which means that, somehow, they made a train tip onto its side without derailing. Whether they did it with a real train or models, I don't know and I don't think I'll try to find out.
The movie centers on three people who have to fight against corporate greed, human incompetence and something you normally don't think of as fearsome, out-of-control technology to avert a disaster that could kill thousands of people. This fictionalized version of a an actual 2001 incident starts when a lazy railyard employee ignores safety procedures and jumps out of the train to manually change a stuck line switch. What I'm sure was a surprise to him but no one else, he failed to properly set the train's dynamic braking system properly and it took off on its own with the mechanisms that would have normally stopped it out of commission. Meanwhile, a conductor-in-training named Will Colson (Chris Pine) finds out he'll be working that day with engineer/trainer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington). When they first meet, they instantly form one of those stupid movie relationships where, for no reason we know of, Frank has an instant dislike for his younger trainee. Fortunately, I can forgive this because we find out later that Frank is actually taking out his frustration about another issue on Will and his behavior suddenly makes sense. After a painful workday filled with back-and-forth drama, they come to find out that they are heading straight toward a runaway train.
We also meet Yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), the woman who has this unthinkable situation suddenly drop in her lap. She discovers that she is apparently working for BP as her executive superiors try to figure out a solution to this problem that is both cheap and serves their PR purposes. Because of the expense, they ignore Connie's suggestion that they derail the train in empty farm country. Connie wants to do this when she finds out the train is carrying tons of volatile and toxic chemicals and wants to get it off the tracks before it reaches a populated area. Her bosses, however, decide to try and drop someone onto the train via helicopter. When that fails, they decide to take up Connie's wonderful suggestion to derail it only now it will have to be done in a populated area. That fails too as I figured it would because problems like this always have to be solved by the stars of the film.
In another callback to older films, director Tony Scott and writer Mark Bomback decided not to give 98% of the screen time to superstar Denzel Washington and actually populated the movie with interesting supporting characters such as Werner (Kevin Corrigan), a very smart and competent federal safety inspector who turns out to be an excellent source of scientific information about trains and what will happen if, say, you back an engine up to an out-of-control train and try to yank it from the other direction that even Frank Barnes with all his experience didn't know. Smart, educated characters in movies are usually ignored in favor of some chunkhead who's listening to his gut, a strategy that works very well in mindless fiction, so it was nice to see a nod given to intelligence.
The three main characters, despite the fact that they make you think the train industry somehow gets the most beautiful people in the world to work for it, are portrayed as normal people with believable problems who never had to be brave or inventive until today as opposed to two fisted loners who are always causing headaches for their superiors because they often have to bend the rules to get the job done and only manage to keep their jobs because dammit, they're the best. I also appreciate the fact that Tony Scott, for this movie at least, has abandoned the acid trip style of filmmaking he has embraced in movies like Man on Fire and instead gave us a straight forward movie that's old fashioned in a very good way. Other movies could learn a thing or two from him. They probably won't, of course, and next week I'll see yet another movie about some dumb guy saving the world that was filmed entirely inside the director's Macintosh.