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Non-Review Review: Unstoppable

I guess I’ve kinda marked Tony Scott as a more talented Michael Bay, in that he’s a director who manages all the tense and superficial elements of his action films particularly well, but that he also a strong eye for dramatic talent and seems to work much better with his leads – or, at least, draw stronger performances from them – than Bay. I was kinda thinking that as I was watching Unstoppable, pondering how Bay’s fascination with physical objects and explosions could have turned the film into a nigh-impossible mess, as the movie is literally based around the idea of a runaway train. Scott can’t quite find the human drama at the core of the story he’s telling, but he does try. And I think that effort alone makes the film watchable, if not remarkable.

Train-ing Day...

At its core, the movie that Scott is making seems to be an ode to human incompetence. Virtually every character presented in the film is a screw-up, whether in a personal or a professional sense. The whole situation, a train running out of control towards a heavily populated region, arises solely because a worker is too lazy to stop and reverse it. The situation escalates because it is not managed efficiently. Even our two lead characters are screw-ups going through their own (completely unnecessary) personal foibles.

I think that’s the biggest problem with the movie: it’s the awkward way that the film tries to get us to invest in the personal problems of our two lead characters, as played by Chris Pine and Denzel Washington. Not only do the two leads have two of the most common personal problems seen in movies like this – with one in the process of losing his family, while the other is trying to stay connected with his children after his partner’s death – but it seems especially convenient thar both problems reach a head on this particular day. One has an important court date, while the other forgets a daughter’s birthday. I know that all movies rely on happenstance and coincidence to varying degrees, and there are far larger examples, but it does seem a little strange and more than a little hackneyed.

Denzel's on top of the situation...

As, in fairness, does the relationship between the pair. The two are the traditional “skilled veteran close to retirement” and “hotshot rookie” combo that we so often see, and the two predictably clash on various issues before growing to respect one another. However, none of this feels especially real or organic. With an out of control juggernaut coming right at them, you’d imagine the conflicts between driver and conductor would escalate fairly quickly to reflect the stakes, but the discussions seem to flare and subside rather randomly. If you want the pair to get along, have them get along; if you want to have them disagree, have them disagree. However, it just seems strange the way that the tension and conflict comes and goes so easily.

On the other hand, Scott does a great job making the threat seem real and tangible. This is the story of a runaway train, so you’d imagine that there’s only so much to be done. Scott deserves a great deal of credit for maintaining tension over the film’s runtime, but also for building the empty train as a powerful force of nature. We have no doubt that it’s a huge accident waiting to happen, and it’s a sign of Scott’s skill that it works so very well. The film is staged so we know the risks, and there are several genuine thrills to be witnessed. You might suggest that a train out of control only offers so much potential, but I think Scott perfectly captures it.

Smashing!

And his cast is solid enough that they do work around some of the awkwardness of the unnecessary and cliché backgrounds that they are offered. Washington is, in my opinion, one of Hollywood’s few major leading men, and he has proven time-and-time again that he can make an interesting movie incredible, and a bland movie watchable. Washington and Pine do as well as one could expect, but it’s fairly clear that neither character is the focus of the story: it’s all about that runaway engine.

The stunts are impressive. As I stated, Scott’s technical credentials are hard to argue with. There are any number of effective sequences through the film, all build around the train, which is strangely ominous for an object completely devoid of any human characteristics. I think that might be the appeal of the train: it’s relentless, it’s a foe that can’t be reasoned with, or rationalised, it’ll just keep going. I think the way that Scott captures that sense of unstoppable momentum is the strongest aspect of the film.

Jump on board...

It’s just a shame that the human element doesn’t register strongly enough. I can see the connections the script is trying to make, but it feels a bit tenuous. I can make out the patterns of human error that zig-zag through the events, but the way the movie tries to tie it to our leads feels a little bit pointless, cliché and extraneous. Still, perhaps I’m wrong for describing Washington and Pine as the leads. We all know that everybody’s here for the train.

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4 Responses

  1. It was fun but too predictable and just didn’t have anything really driving it as much as I would have liked to. Also, why the hell is Tony Scott constantly on drugs while he’s directing?!? Good Review!

    • Thanks, I agree. But I don’t mind the drug thing. It’s like a more skilled Michael Bay approach. I actually wonder what Scott might have done with Transformers.

  2. He’s no Ridley but Tony’s films tend to entertain me most of the way through – something I can only say of “The Rock” for Bay. I thought “Man on Fire” was pretty quality stuff. Even as far back as “True Romance” I was gaining respect for Scott. Can he be forgiven “Top Gun” already?

    • Ah, he never needed forgiving for that? I remember being “Maverick” to an “Iceman” in college. And I think I was born after the movie came out. I’m actually less fond of Man on Fire than most – the convenient twist kinda knocked me back a bit. I’d argue that Enemy of the State and Crimson Tide are great nineties films. I’m not sure how much of the appeal of True Romance lies with Scott or with Tarantino, but that’s an underrated (and sadly underseen) gem.

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