Thursday, November 18, 2010

629 - Unstoppable review

“Unstoppable” is about the crisis that ensues when an unmanned train runs at full speed through Pennsylvania. The cargo, of course, is a rather hazardous chemical that threatens to annihilate all human life in a pretty sizeable area should it crash, which it will very soon.

What I found myself especially admiring about “Unstoppable” is both its greatest strength and weakness: a laser-like focus on telling a story that’s fundamentally exciting and uncomplicated. Most of the better action-thrillers (and genre pictures period, for that matter) know their purpose and get to work. Usually, there are a few steps to this: scenario, character introduction, action, character buildup, action again.

Here, the heroes are played by Denzel Washington and Chris Pine (of “Star Trek” fame). They’re an engineer and a conductor, respectively, who devise and execute a risky way to stop the runaway train before it derails in a heavily populated area. For a big-budget thriller with its two main stars receiving such a prominent spot on the poster, the characters are of a surprisingly everyman quality, their powers limited to that of competent men with the bravery to rise to the occasion. We don’t get to know either very intimately, as the film’s entire plot from beginning to end only covers a few hours, but we’re already familiar with their archetypes from other movies, and the actors portraying them signify that these men will play a key role in solving the crisis. Washington in particular is seemingly infallible, able to play both regular guy protagonists and nigh-invincible killing machines with equal amounts gravitas and charisma (I think the only role he’d be incapable of is that of a coward).

Over at the train HQ, where the crisis began courtesy of a local nitwit’s lack of concern for safety, a rather lovely train executive (Rosario Dawson) battles with a less-than-kind superior (Kevin Dunn) over potential monetary loses. The greedy executive is the closest thing “Unstoppable” has for an actual villain, a sort of necessary evil to appease the audience members who aren’t content with the potential destruction to be caused by an inanimate, agenda-free object. Scott and writer Mark Bomback aptly imbue these scenes with an energy that makes them near-seamless with the action.

“Unstoppable” is directed by Tony Scott, who I complimented last year for toning down his typically aggressive style in “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.” He’s even better here, his camera capturing the deadly train and the efforts of those on and off the tracks with an urgency that’s exhilarating and never overwhelming.

Will the train be stopped in time? you might ask, if you’ve never seen an American movie before. It comes down to one of those scenes where the heroes’ loved ones (two of whom are in Hooters outfits, no less) watch the action through TV screens, wrought with suspense over whether or not it’ll work out. Of course “Unstoppable” could be dismissed as ridiculous, a piece of fluff escapism that adds up to zero thematically. You wouldn’t be wrong. But does it work? Well, I was breathless for the last twenty minutes.

3.5 out of 5

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