Available this week on DVD, “Unstoppable,” starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, will remind many viewers of another recent Tony Scott movie, “Pelham 1 2 3.” This one, which features a runaway freight train rather than a subway car full of hostages, might be called “Train 777.” Indeed, the train is almost as much a character as the humans, a looming threat that, like the monster in the “Alien” series, just keeps on comin’. The movie owes much to the formula for such flicks, but Scott and film editor Ben Seresin keep the action barreling along at such a breakneck pace we hardly care about some of the problems with Mark Bomback’s screenplay.
Washington’s role in “Pelham” is effectively filled by Rosario Dawson, cast somewhat against type, as the desk-bound dispatcher who finds herself in the middle of a potential disaster. She has to deal with an engine pulling thirty-nine loaded cars that rolls out of the yard, picks up steam, and heads for a giant curve in the middle of a city down the line. Various efforts to stop it early on fail, including one by the knucklehead who causes the mishap. Scott builds the tension nicely in the early going, though everyone knows that the train is going to make it to the curve. The accumulation of slip-ups, personality clashes, and just plain ignorance of the situation allows a bunch of minor characters to share the spotlight and Scott to throw in a bunch of smaller near-disasters.
The plot also includes back stories about the two central characters, veteran engineer Frank Barnes (Washington) and rookie conductor Will Colson (Pine). Frank, a widower, has two grown daughters who work at Hooters. (I’m assuming there was a product placement fee somewhere in here.) Will is separated from his wife and son, both of whom live in the Pennsylvania city threatened by the train, which has a load of lethal chemicals. These family complications are supposed to humanize the characters, I guess, but they mostly just slow down the otherwise unrelenting action.
We may be grateful for the break from the thunderous soundtrack and wealth of visual information coming at us like, well, a freight train. But the time away from Washington and Colson as they try to chase down the train, hook onto it, and bring it to a stop slows the film’s momentum and adds some sentimental clichés to the script. Scott handled the family stuff and the conflicts with higher-ups in the system more deftly in “Pelham,” which also has considerably more comic relief, making it a more consistently enjoyable film.
“Unstoppable” is rated “PG-13” for some violence and relatively mild profanity. Inspired by a true story of a runaway train in Ohio and filmed in that state, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, it has a gritty, blue-collar feel to it. It’s fun to watch, if not especially original or surprising—a good escape from the February blahs.