If you are a filmmaker, a movie about a runaway train must be an easy sell. Whatever human drama you try to pump into the plotline, whatever grand statement you are attempting to make about the state of the Union, the fact remains – a runaway train is a runaway train.
Of course, not all runaway train (or bus or subway car) movies are created equal. The best one was probably “Runaway Train,” starring Jon Voight and Eric Roberts. (It should have been called “Runaway Performance.”) The first “Speed” was pretty good. One of the lesser entries was Tony Scott’s recent remake of “The Taking of Pelham 123.” Still feeling the need for speed, Scott is back, with the aptly named and much improved “Unstoppable.”
Scott isn’t exactly Ingmar Bergman when it comes to delineating interpersonal relationships, and the dialogue from writer Mark Bomback sounds as if it was devised by a computer program for beginning screenwriters. No matter. The real star here is the big, unmanned freight train sparking through Pennsylvania at 70 m.p.h. while carrying hazardous cargo. Best of all, the train doesn’t have any dialogue.
The film’s ostensible stars are Denzel Washington and Chris Pine as the two railroad heroes who attempt to stop the unguided missile when all else fails. Washington’s Frank is a hardened veteran resentful of Pine’s Will, a newbie who not only got his job through family connections but is also having marital problems. Single dad Frank, meantime, has two unruly daughters to fret over. (They both waitress at Hooters.)
All this backstory and more emerges while the two guys, manning another train, attempt a hyper-dangerous hookup with the locomotive. It’s comforting to know that, under such straitened circumstances, it’s still possible to conduct a bond-a-thon.
The rumbly action sequences are, to my eye, blessedly free of CGI effects. What you see is what you get. The kinetic energy of these scenes, not to mention the stuntwork, is amazing. It’s easy to dispel the silliness that surrounds them – like the way Scott tries to turn “Unstoppable” into a tidy parable about recession-era inequities. (The rail company CEO, informed during his country club golf game that the locomotive could kill thousands of people, frets about the company’s stock price.)
Like it or not, there are some things that movies do best. Movies do not generally do a great job with anything involving heavy-duty cogitation, but when it comes to runaway trains, the medium is peerless. All aboard! Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and peril, and some language.)
More Monitor movie reviews: