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Dave on film: “Unstoppable”—this film got derailed

Dave Taylor //November 17, 2010//

Dave on film: “Unstoppable”—this film got derailed

Dave Taylor //November 17, 2010//

A train going 70mph, full of dangerous chemicals, with no one driving? Exciting! Or is it? Read on for my lukewarm review of this new box-office hit starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine…

Review: Unstoppable

After directing films like Deja Vu, Spy Game, Enemy of the State and Crimson Tide, it’s clear that Tony Scott knows the formula for an exciting action film. His pacing prowess is the heart of the new thriller Unstoppable, a film that has so many plot holes that it resembles a block of Swiss cheese. Scott has cast Denzel Washington in quite a few of his films, including The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Deja Vu, Man on Fire and Crimson Tide, so it’s no surprise to find Denzel in the lead role of Unstoppable.

Unstoppable, we’re told, is “inspired by true events” and is based on a 2001 incident where a CSX freight train with thousands of gallons of highly flammable molten phenol shot down 70 miles of track in Ohio without anyone on board. The emergency air brake system was disconnected and it hit speeds in excess of 45mph before it was finally slowed down enough that an engineer was able to leap on board and stop it.

Tony Scott’s version of the story is set in a noisy, dirty, blue-collar Pennsylvania and it’s a classic buddy film with grizzled 28-year railroad veteran Frank Barnes (Denzel) and brand-new conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine) driving a freight train that ends up being hit by the runaway train. They uncouple the destroyed train cars then catch up to the runaway and slow it down before it hits a highly populated area and causes untold damage.

Add to the cast tough-as-nails dispatcher Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), crass, greedy corporate manager Gavin (Kevin Dunn) and Federal Railroad Administration government overseer Scott Warner (Victor Gojcaj), and you have all the elements required for a compelling drama. Unfortunately,Unstoppable was predictable, every character was tediously one-dimensional, and Denzel walked thru his role without demonstrating any acting whatsoever, as he’s done in his last few movies.

Though the film is fundamentally about the runaway train and the various attempts to stop it, derail it or otherwise get an engineer on board before there’s a disaster, even mediocre films need backstories for the characters, so we learn that Colson is barred from seeing his wife and son because of a restraining order against him. While domestic violence is a serious issue – particularly when it includes threatening a police officer with a gun – it’s never addressed and ends up being the offense against which he redeems himself by his heroic subsequent actions.

Barnes isn’t without his own domestic challenge, but it’s far more noble: he’s a widow, his wife recently passed away from cancer, leaving him with two beautiful daughters who are paying their way through college by working at Hooters. We know this because he tapes up a photo of the two girls on the train control panel, then calls to apologize to the elder, Nicole (Elizabeth Mathis) about forgetting her birthday.

The character that sets the entire story in motion is Dewey (Ethan Suplee), a stereotypical fat slob of an engineer whose laziness and poor physical condition leads to the entire crisis, though when he sets the throttle to the lowest setting and it mysteriously jogs to the highest while he’s jumped out of the cab to throw a rail switch, it seems more like an obvious plot device than anything “inspired by true events”. Worse, Dewey is a tragic oaf in the same vein as the similarly stereotypical fat geek (Wayne Knight) in Jurassic Park who sets that entire story in motion too.

The challenge with the decades-old Hollywood Star Machine is that well known actors end up playing themselves in movies, rather than inhabiting the character roles, and while Pine does an adequate job, I was greatly disappointed by Denzel Washington who has walked thru at least the last half-dozen films he’s been involved with. Unstoppable is no different. He’s not grizzled train veteran Frank Barnes, he’s Denzel Washington unengaged in yet another action film. It’s a seventh inning slump that he and Tony Scott have been in for years now, and it really hurts the film.

Unstoppable could have been an exciting film if there would have been any effort spent on believable non-cliché character development and if the actors involved in the film would have put their egos aside and really stepped into their roles. Instead we have a visually thrilling, empty, vapid action film from a master of the craft, a completely forgettable movie that creates minimal suspense and wraps with a painfully predictable ending. Based on fact or not, action films can include believable characters, but I’m convinced now that’s just not in Tony Scott’s oeuvre. My advice? Unstoppable will be a good film to catch on HBO or RedBox.

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