In the Tony Scott school of hard knocks, it’s not content for a character to merely get knocked to the ground in a fist-fight. The fist must connect with the face from five different angles – preferably in slow motion once – before a hectic montage sees the body fall to the floor accompanied by ear-bleeding sound effects. If he’s feeling especially energetic, he’ll speed the camera up and then slow it down.
There are no dust-ups in his latest, Unstoppable, but the same aesthetic still applies – much to the detriment of the drama. It’s inspired by the true story of a runaway train that ploughed through Ohio in 2001, the ‘inspired by’ tag being Hollywood’s get-out clause for sensationalizing many a real-life drama. In reality the locomotive never exceeded 47 mph – but with Scott’s camera working overtime, his train looks like it’s ready to smash through the sound barrier.
And of course he saddles leads Denzel Washington and Chris Pine with the obligatory back-story, although, refreshingly, exposition is kept to a minimum. Washington’s the old-hand with two daughters working at Hooters who takes on brash newcomer Pine, a young buck with wife and child. One idiotic mishap later and an unmanned freight train with deadly cargo is barrelling down the tracks and it’s up to both men to stop it.
Annoyingly though, Scott never lets the tension speak for itself, dissipating it through blatty sound design and dozens of edits for every two minutes of film. It’s safe to say Scott has helmed his fair share of strong drama – True Romance benefited from a dazzling production line of A-list cameos and Crimson Tide was nail-biting – but Unstoppable never builds up a head of steam.
It has pretensions to be about the working-class milieu (Pennsylvania standing in for Ohio), and with effortlessly watchable stars Washington and Pine manning the fort, it nearly succeeds, both actors able to sell working class grit and gruff charm with ease. Rosario Dawson is also excellent as the yardmaster, getting all the juicy lines such as: “We’re not dealing with a train; we’re dealing with a missile, the size of the Chrysler Building!”
Unfortunately, they’re all constantly undermined by their director, one who insults the intelligence of the audience by throwing in the obligatory news-crews reporting on the incident and repeating verbatim key lines of dialogue spoken only moments earlier. It also follows that suspect notion that the corporate suits who own the train are shifty because they’re seen answering mobile phones in the middle of a golf course. The groundwork was set for a lean, mean 80-minute drama, but unfortunately Unstoppable is dead in its tracks.