With a capable cast and the right script, Tony Scott has made terrific movies. Lately however, he’s taken on a string of lousy screenplays and contributed little to them. In “Unstoppable,” it isn’t initially clear whether he’s working for or against us—irksome stylistic choices threaten to derail his momentum at every turn. But like Triple Seven, a ghost train towing a half-mile of hazardous chemicals, the breakneck energy he builds vaporizes any obstructions in its path. “Unstoppable” is a fun, effective film.
Anchored by charismatic performances by Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, Scott’s latest is refreshingly straightforward: a seasoned engineer (Washington) and his trainee (Pine) are on a routine delivery when they unwittingly become the last, best hope to stop an unmanned locomotive from jumping track in a highly populated Pennsylvanian town. Silly though the characters’ transitions from blue-collar workers to action stars might be, the premise is simple and stays that way, and the plot builds not in scale but in intensity. Of course, there’s plenty of railyard jargon and engineering exposition peppered throughout to create a veneer of complexity, but “Can’t stop the train” is about all you’ll ever need to know.
And what more do you need to know? “Unstoppable” is one of the most viscerally exciting Hollywood spectacles this year, and a welcome relief in the action spectrum from the ceaseless deluge of military and mercenary films. An action movie sans combat is all but unheard of in this day and age, but never fear; Scott squeezes in enough explosions and speedometer-snapping trucks, helicopters, and trains to keep even the most attention deficient spectators docile. That he does so without relying on conventional violence is just the icing on the cake.
Still, “Unstoppable” is a far from perfect film, and the fun had comes only after a mandatory adjustment to Scott’s ugly shooting style. His carousel dollies, unmotivated snap zooms, and bland color palette are all major distractions. Either Scott doesn’t care whether his images have an independent artistry, or he has terrible aesthetic taste. Even his coverage feels inadequate in certain instances—key moments are muddled because we aren’t sure of Triple Seven’s spatial relationship to its surroundings. For an action director, that’s a significant oversight.
Yet ultimately, it barely matters. As ugly and unpolished as “Unstoppable” often looks, it’s hard to deny the base effectiveness of the imagery. The sense of constant motion is no accident, and that the photography manages to vilify Triple Seven as our inanimate antagonist is an accomplishment in itself. The integration of faux newscasts into the narrative is an interesting choice as well, though does little to elevate it on a visual level.
“Unstoppable” is an unambitious action film, but one that succeeds beyond its own meager expectations for itself. It’s a goofy, gimmicky movie that will likely play on basic cable years from now, watched and enjoyed by its audience simply “because it’s on.” There is a certain timeless appeal it shares with the likes of Scott’s own “Top Gun,” and “Unstoppable” does for trains what it did for jets.
Tony Scott is rarely the sole determiner of his successes, and the stars aligned for “Unstoppable.” A marriage of performance, material, and realization, the director has hit his first Triple Seven in years. The effectiveness of the equation was audible; even in a half-full screening, the crowd gasped and applauded at all the right moments.
If you don't have the opportunity to see this worthwhile thriller theatrically, fear for your evenings when “Unstoppable” makes its way to basic cable.