Jump the Rails

In true “what you see is what you get” fashion, director Tony Scott’s latest doesn’t make any attempts at redefining (or even adding to) an expansive blue-collar action genre — instead, Scott defaults to action boilerplate. In any other context (or any other film with far less Denzel Washington) the outcome would have been catastrophic, but despite the moribund premise and occasionally overemotional moments of cheese, Scott’s flick delivers on its promise. It’s a mildly entertaining middle-of-the-road action movie divested of any substantial thinking.

By nature, the film’s “Speed” premise narrows the film’s artistic and narrative scope down to a variety of well-timed collisions and a two-track story outcome: Either the train stops or it doesn’t. Much like train 777, “Unstoppable” careens down its set path, restricted by its own main line. The movie follows a straight-faced, no-nonsense train engineer, Frank (Washington), who has been assigned to teach new pretty-boy conductor Will (Chris Pine) the rules of the train yard. After two bumbling fellow employees lose control of a half-a-mile-long train, Will and Frank set down the tracks to retrieve the freight (which, to raise the stakes, has poisonous substances on board) and assuage the woes of a nervous populace and the ever-grumbling vice president Galvin (Kevin Dunn).

Though “Unstoppable” panders to the working class by making an ass of anyone with a six-figure salary — a well-timed move, considering the state of the economy — none of the character’s hustle can keep the film from seeming lazy. Information on the leading men is minimal — as they talk shop, we’re told Will’s wife hasn’t spoken to him in two weeks, and Frank’s wife died from cancer a couple of years back. Faux-concern shared between the actors is thrown into high relief by half-baked character development. Frank’s single-parent stock persona isn’t aided by writer Mark Bomback’s apathetic attempts at quirk — Frank’s daughters, god save him, work at Hooters.

Outside this undynamic duo, sidelined characters are caught in the entrails of their own kitsch. At one point, a train full of school-aged children stare, slack-jawed, as the unmanned train passes by, ooh-ing their delight. Later, Will’s estranged, disenchanted wife bursts into alligator tears as her husband’s fate becomes increasingly unclear.
Nonetheless, “Unstoppable” chugs along, punctuating dialogue with an impressive display of explosive grandeur — cars, trains and people all go up in a dazzling, twisting array of billowing flames and cloud-smoke. But the movie is overly concerned with its own machinery — prolonged shots of sparks as brakes hit metal, trains flip over in fantastic 180-mid air twists and a scowling, brow-furrowed Washington come at the cost of a more intricate plotline.

But derailing a money-maker comes at too high a price, Galvin says. And “Unstoppable”’s head-conductor Scott agrees.

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