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Unstoppable (2010)

The Freight Escape

Unstoppable is the only movie I can think of that fucks itself in the opening ten seconds.  After the studio logos, the first thing we see is the always dubious “Inspired by True Events” title card.

Typically, any film you see that purports to be inspired by true events (the new-millennium branding of “based on a true story”) is not based on anything resembling real life.  The actors may physically resemble actual people and play characters who share their names, but the manner in which their stories unfold are uniformly formulaic.  I’ve never met anyone whose life follows the Hollywood-perfected uplifting three-act-weepie, but if you’re to believe its output, there are thousands of Americans living The Blind Side every day.

Unstoppable is a unique case in that the trailers paint a tense doomsday scenario where a train loaded with toxic chemicals barrels towards a town and another train full of kids (which, it turns out is kind of a red herring).  The fate of untold numbers of people falls to a couple of railroad workers who happen to be speeding along that same length of track.  At one point, Rosario Dawson’s character intones, “It’s a missile the size of the Chrysler Building!”

For general audiences, this is probably a blood-quickening line.  For people who follow the news—or at least read Yahoo! headlines at lunch—it’s solid proof that the movie is total bullshit.

How can I be so sure?  Well, I don’t remember hearing about the great Stanton, Pennsylvania train wreck that decimated 700,000 people; which means the train didn’t explode, and there’s no better way to suck all suspense and purpose out of a runaway train movie than to tell the audience that everything will be okay before the story even begins.

By the time I’d figured this out, the were down and I was already being assaulted by director Tony Scott’s over-used shaky-cam shots of trains sitting still; no turning back, in other words.

So, what about the rest of the story?

That’s problematic, too, because there are so many screw-ups by so many apathetic, dim-witted loser characters that if any of the events leading up to the train getting loose are real, then the feds need to halt all forms of public transportation immediately.

Usually, a movie like this paints corporate bosses as the clueless, heartless foils to the salt-of-the-earth working men with the solid work ethic.  In Unstoppable, all of the Regular Joes are Grade-A assholes (except for Denzel Washington; go figure).  From the lazy rail workers who blow off connecting the air brakes on a thirty-nine-car chemical train, to the engineer who runs late for work because he stops at a diner for breakfast, to the old pro who hates anyone affiliated with the union, there’s barely a character in Unstoppable’s first twenty minutes who doesn’t deserve our scorn.

As for the main cast, Chris Pine stars as rookie conductor Will Colson, who gets partnered with twenty-eight-year-veteran Frank Barnes (Washington).  Both men have family problems (Will is estranged from his wife and son; Frank from his Hooters-waitress daughters) and professional problems (Frank is at the end of his ninety-day layoff notice; Will is related to some big-wigs at the railroad company and gets flak from his co-workers for having gone to school and landing an entry-level job at the family business—what a scumbag, huh?).  Their friendship works only because of the actors’ chemistry.  Their dialogue was copied and pasted from the Mediocre Buddy-Comedy Handbook.

The film’s real stars are Rosario Dawson as Connie, the quick-thinking dispatcher who monitors the runaway train’s progress, and Kevin Corrigan as Werner, a federal inspector who happens to be visiting the command center on the worst possible day.  Dawson exudes authenticity in a movie that mocks it, and Corrigan goes against his quirky fringe character shtick to play the one suit in Unstoppable who refuses to make bad decisions for the sake of advancing the plot.

The movie also has an anti-star in the form of Ben Seresin’s atrocious camerawork.  If you intend to see Unstoppable, allow me to plant this seed in your head: After the half-hour mark, notice that every scene involving Washington begins with the camera zooming past him in a semi-circular motion. This happens in other cases as well, and it’s impossible not to notice once you catch on.  It’s as if Scott and Seresin want to make up for the lack of excitement in screenwriter Mark Bomback's train scenes by artificially enhancing moments where Frank talks about losing his job.

Yes, I’m saying the train scenes lack excitement—for the exact reason with which I opened this review.  All of the phony drama surrounding the many attempts to de-rail the train ring hollow because A) I know the train won’t be stopped until the end of the movie, and B) everything’s going to be okay.  Only one person dies in Unstoppable, and if you can’t figure out who it is upon their introduction, I’d say you’re a good five to seven years away from being sophisticated enough to handle PG-13 films.

It’s a shame, too, because there is one scene were we’re made to believe that Will gets sucked under the train and dies.  But he doesn’t, because we all know that true events never lead to someone getting killed; heroes always reunite with their loved ones during impromptu, post-climax press conferences (which confused the hell out of me, by the way, because one of the characters managed to pull off a stylish wardrobe change in the space of about half an hour; impossible, unless he happened to have a pressed suit in the bed of his pick-up truck).

Sidebar:  I should mention that I was disappointed when Will climbed up from under the train; not because I’d expected anything different, but because by the time he went down I’d learned why he was estranged from his wife: He flew into a jealous rage one night after suspecting her of texting another man.  He threatened the guy with a gun; too bad for Will the alleged infidel was a cop; doubly bad that the texts came from his wife’s sister.  So, yeah, I had a hard time rooting for such a douche-headed bully, and a harder time suppressing my rage at the family’s joyous reunion (How precious!  They’ve got another kid on the way!).

Another Sidebar:  On the topic of families, couldn’t the casting director have chosen actors to play Frank’s daughters instead of models?  I’m making an assumption here, based on the fact that when their dad appears on the Hooters bar TV running across the top of a speeding train, both girls register a look that’s somewhere between giddiness and an uncertainty that the director has called “Action”.  They do little to promote Hooters girls as more than brain-dead tit-bots, and it’s sad.

I left Unstoppable in a funk.  I love just about everyone involved, and was at one time a big Tony Scott fan.  But this movie is nothing more than an off-season actioner full of petty characters and predictable outcomes.  If this is inspiring entertainment for and about real people, I’ll stick with science fiction, thank you very much.

Note:  I remember now that the “inspired by true events” tag was in the film’s trailer.  In case you’re wondering, I didn’t walk into Unstoppable biased—doubtful, sure, but not biased.  I give every movie a fair chance to win me over, and Unstoppable did the exact opposite of that.

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