By now, we almost expect our action movies to have quick succession shots, fast moving hand-held camerawork, high tech gadgetry, and a pulse-pounding soundtrack. These are customary elements of any action movie and we can thank director Tony Scott for bringing this aesthetic to the action movie genre. Since TOP GUN, Scott has been credited with creating what’s popularly called the MTV-style of filmmaking. His films have a music video feel to them that has divided many critics and has even caused a few of them to declare the end of cinema as we know it. Like him or not, Tony Scott has influenced a whole generation of filmmakers like Michael Bay, Antoine Fuqua, Simon West, and others. To me, Tony Scott has always been the poor man to his more talented brother, Ridley (ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, GLADIATOR, need I go on?). Tony’s films don’t strive to be high art or extravagant epics like his brother’s films do. He remains content with churning out visual eyefuck action films that these days usually star Denzel Washington. Lately, Scott seems to have developed a fetish for trains with last year’s THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3 and now with UNSTOPPABLE, which again stars Denzel Washington.

UNSTOPPABLE is apparently based on true events, but I suspect that “based” is a term that’s very loosely used here. I know for a fact that the event the film is based upon took place in Toledo, Ohio, but that is all I know. Suffice it to say that if even half of UNSTOPPABLE truly happened, we sure as hell would have heard about it, but I’m splitting hairs here. It doesn’t really matter whether or not this film was based on events that supposedly happened. UNSTOPPABLE is a popcorn disaster-action film about an unmanned runaway train “the size of the Chrysler Building.” The train contains hazardous chemicals and unless someone stops it, the train will derail in Stanton, Pennsylvania and cause a massive shitstorm. Denzel Washington plays Frank Barnes, a veteran railroad engineer who’s been handed his early retirement pinkslip by the corporate bosses. Barnes is two weeks shy of starting his retirement when he’s paired up with the young Will Colson (Chris Pine), a train conductor who got the job because of his family connections to the company. When Barnes and Colson learn that there’s a runaway train, they, along with the train yardmaster (Rosario Dawson), work together to stop the train before it reaches the city of Stanton.

You can figure this movie out from the very first frame. You know that Barnes and Colson are going to eventually stop the train and be hailed as heroes at the end while at the same time reconciling with their estranged children and spouses. If you’ve seen one Tony Scott movie, you’ve pretty much seen them all. This might bother those of you looking for something more fresh and original. However, as a fan of Tony Scott’s work, I was not in the least bit bothered by the fact that UNSTOPPABLE basically boils down to a retread of the same shit Scott has done many times before. Similar to filmmakers like Woody Allen and David Lynch, Tony Scott has a particular style that has attracted a cult following that expects more of the same every time he comes out with a new movie. At the same time, as much as I enjoyed UNSTOPPABLE, some of the familiar Tony Scott trademarks began to feel stale and dated this time around.

The basic premise of the story serves as a good action movie and I suspect Scott had to inject the story with many additional dramatic elements to maintain the audience’s interest (i.e. the main characters’ attempts to reconcile with their estranged families, the greedy corporation’s self-interest, physical obstacles getting in the way of the runaway train, the dangerous materials contained inside the train, etc.). There is not a single angle or possibility that is not explored in telling this story. Anything you can imagine potentially happening with an event like this is covered. For that the movie feels more like a well-researched procedural rather than some dumb action flick that requires you to check your brain at the door. I think that might turn some audiences off and bore them during the movie, which leads me to my first criticism of the film.

For all the effort Tony Scott clearly put into making UNSTOPPABLE, what he doesn’t completely succeed at pulling off is giving the film sufficient suspense. During much of the movie, I found myself drifting off and thinking about something else. I appreciate all the characters taking me through all the technicalities involved in stopping a runaway train, but I felt that the edge of your seat suspense the film required was sacrificed in the process. The only scene that was truly exciting was during the very end when our characters finally stop the train. Before that, we have a couple of scenes during which various attempts are made to stop the train, but despite Scott’s kinetic camerawork, they lack any excitement.

Tony Scott has proven to be quite adept in creating bromance relationships (Maverick and Goose in TOP GUN, Denzel and Hackman in CRIMSON TIDE, and Will Smith and Hackman in ENEMY OF THE STATE). The performances from Denzel Washington and Chris Pine stand among the more successful elements of the film. The two actors develop a good rapport and I cared enough about them to want to see them stop the train and resolve their personal problems. Washington plays his usual everyman, strong-willed, all-knowing mentor game that he’s become so well known for over the past couple of decades. Although I enjoy seeing Washington play characters out of type (i.e. TRAINING DAY), I never get sick of watching him play his usual role because he is just so damn charismatic and good at playing it. There is a good reason why Washington’s current acting fee is $20 million and he brings every bit of that onscreen. As for Chris Pine, I have been waiting to see him in something other than STAR TREK and I was certainly not disappointed by him in UNSTOPPABLE. Pine has a quiet, contemplative nature to him that reminds me at times of James Dean. Many of today’s young actors simply don’t have the acting chops to be capable of even remotely emoting a basic feeling. Pine has yet to display a wide acting range, but from what little I have seen from the actor, he shows promise and with the right career choices, Pine may very well become the next Tom Cruise.

As much as I liked Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, the performance that threw me for a loop was the one given by Rosario Dawson, who plays Connie, the train yardmaster. I’ve seen Dawson in many films, but she’s never been memorable in any of them. I was expecting more of the same in this film and I couldn’t have been more surprised by how well she pulled off her role and elevated it to a level that even surpassed Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. Dawson pretty much plays the same role that Washington played in THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3. She spends the vast majority of the film inside a control room following news developments about the runaway train. Its certainly not the most glamorous role, especially when compared to what Washington and Pine got to do. However, Dawson brings a tenacity and fierceness to the character that really makes you empathize with her as she struggles to deal with the corporate bosses and making sure the train doesn’t cause any further damage or fatalities.

I said before that with UNSTOPPABLE, Tony Scott’s style has finally begun to look stale and dated. When Scott introduced the current variation of his patented style in ENEMY OF THE STATE, the kinetic, fast-moving camerawork and the idea of using satellites and news cameras to show the action was an innovative style in 1998. Scott’s style evolved into the use of handheld cameras to convey fast action. However, after more than a decade of such headache-inducing filmmaking, Scott no longer seems to be the trailblazer he once was and instead comes off as a relic of an outmoded style. For once I wanted to see one shot that was actually stationary and not moving all over the place. Conveying the story through Fox News reports now felt like lazy storytelling instead of being an innovative storytelling device. Other than the implausibly uber high-tech control center, I noticed a lot less high-tech gadgetry being used this time. I suspect this may be due to the fact that the railroad transportation system doesn’t employ the fancy gadgetry we’re so used to seeing in Tony Scott movies. Besides, the movie is set (and shot in) Pennsylvania and you can tell Scott tried to give the film a blue-collar, heartland feel to the movie (NOTE: The main characters use a decidedly low-tech flip phone whereas the railroad corporate bosses use smart phones), which wouldn’t leave a lot of room for high tech devices.

UNSTOPPABLE works on some levels, mostly through its storytelling and meticulous coverage of how a potential disaster like a runaway train would play out in the real world. There are many aspects of the film that I truly enjoyed, but overall the film failed to resonate with me. It lacked suspense and I found myself getting more and more annoyed with the director’s filmmaking technique. Just as he has done in the past, it seems like a good time for Tony Scott to change his filmmaking style and adopt something drastically different (and maybe even cast someone other than Denzel Washington).

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