Monday, November 15, 2010

Unstoppable / **** (PG-13)

Frank: Denzel Washington
Will: Chris Pine
Connie: Rosario Dawson
Galvin: Kevin Dunn
Inspector Werner: Kevin Corrigan
Ned: Lew Temple
Dewey: Ethan Suplee

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Tony Scott. Written by Mark Bomback. Running time: 98 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of action and peril, and some language).

When I first heard about “Unstoppable”, the fifth feature film collaboration between star Denzel Washington and director Tony Scott, I didn’t think much of it. Their best film together was their first, the submarine thriller “Crimson Tide”; and they’ve had diminishing quality returns ever since. When I discovered it was a runaway train picture, I thought, didn’t they just do a train flick with “The Taking of Pelham 123”? When I saw the previews, I thought that it looked even more preposterous than the totally testosterone driven “Runaway Train” from 1985.

Then, the reviews started coming in. They were surprisingly positive for a Tony Scott movie and for what appeared to be merely a popcorn thriller. Even then I was surprised to find “Unstoppable” to be one of the most efficient, exciting, and poignant thrillers I’ve seen in years.

Claiming to be “based on true events”, not that it matters, Scott and screenwriter Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard”) model their film on the basic disaster flick structure. First, they set up the crisis; in this case a train yard employee loses control of a train he is moving when he gets out to change a track switch. As this situation develops we are introduced to several unrelated characters, who all end up becoming contributing factors to the developing crisis before it all comes to a head. Wisely, Bomback chooses to hold back the cast of characters to the bare essentials, unlike the ridiculous Irwin Allen disaster flicks of the 70s.

We meet the heroes. Frank (Washington) is the veteran train driver, who is saddled with a new conductor, Will (Chris Pine, “Star Trek”), for a day of on site training. Will is dealing with a troubled marriage along with carrying the burden of being the lower paid rookie who has been recruited by corporate to replace the higher paid veterans before they reach retirement age. We meet Connie (Rosario Dawson, “Seven Pounds”), the dispatcher who is the only one who seems to realize that their “coaster” train is a major threat.

We also meet Galvin (Kevin Dunn, “Transformers”), vice president of train operations, the man who makes all the wrong decisions. Ned (Lew Temple, “Waitress”) is the grease monkey who ends up providing a key to the resolution of the crisis and would threaten to steal the show were he allowed more screen time. Finally, there’s railroad Inspector Werner, a character that in a lesser movie would be used to provide false tension to the events by threatening to close everything down and have everyone’s jobs. Here he’s handled with intelligence by the filmmakers and by actor Kevin Corrigan (“Big Fan”). He provides valuable insight to the developing events including the information that some of the train’s cargo is a highly toxic chemical. He provides an anchor for everyone who is trying desperately to do the right things.

This material is perfect for Scott’s kinetic direction and quick cut editing style. The events begin almost innocuously; with the initial loss of control over the train presented as something that happens occasionally. Scott keeps the multiple storylines of the characters shuffling at a compelling rate until the runaway train angle really gets under way. The tension felt between the two stars is typical of this type of story, but handled well with each character biting a little too hard at the other at some point. These seem like real emotions they’re dealing with. And, it doesn’t hurt that nobody’s going to complain about having to watch either Washington or Pine.

What really separates this material from the standard action thriller, however, is its commentary on our current economic climate. This is a movie made for and about the recession. The conflict between the two heroes involves the fact that Frank has been forced into early retirement with half benefits so the company can make room for cheaper inexperienced labor like Will. The main reason Galvin makes all the wrong decisions is that the board makes them by committee with more considerations for profit loss than what will actually work. There’s one scene where one of the biggest decisions on how to handle the crisis is made by an executive from a golf course while Galvin ignores the experienced advice he receives from Connie. Of course, the ideas of the blue-collar workers would lead to the safest and best resolution, while the moneymen end up costing everyone.

Some viewers may not see the economic metaphor, and therein lies the movie’s overall power. It works as both kinds of movies. Some will just enjoy a thrilling popcorn tosser. Others will see their own troubles coming up with their monthly mortgage on screen. “Unstoppable” is a classic use of great genre entertainment as social commentary that is filled with the spirit that imbues Americans’ lives today. Perhaps even the title, “Unstoppable,” is meant to imply something about our American spirit as well. Let’s hope so.

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