By Neil Pond
For American Profile
Many a little boy had a model train as a toy. Millions of children have grown up on the tales of Thomas the Tank Engine, a friendly, helpful little locomotive.
The train in “Unstoppable,” the new action vehicle from director Tony Scott, is no plaything.
It is, as one character describes, “a missile the size of the Chrysler Building.” It’s out of control, and unmanned. It’s carrying a payload of highly flammable materials. And it’s capable of pulverizing anything in its path.
This is one cataclysmic choo-choo.
What can stop it? Who can harness this rampaging steel stallion and avert a disaster?
The smart money’s on Denzel Washington and Chris Pine.
Washington plays Frank, a veteran railroad engineer facing early forced retirement. Pine is Will, his younger rookie partner out to prove he didn’t get his spot because of his family’s union connections.
Based on a real incident, “Unstoppable” adds a number of dramatic elements and embellishments but remains faithful to the factual framework. In 2001, a train in Ohio did manage to pull out of the rail yard without an engineer, a conductor or anyone else on board. It was carrying more than 40 cars of toxic, combustible substances. Before a railroad worker was able jump aboard and apply the brakes, it cruised along for more than 60 mostly uneventful miles.
The movie tosses a few “eventful” possibilities into the train’s 70-miles-an-hour path, including another train on the same track, headed in the opposite direction...and carrying a group of school kids on a “train safety” field trip.
Washington and director Scott worked together on another hell-on-rails drama last year, “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3.” Pine caught the spotlight in 2009 as Captain Kirk in the big-budget movie remake of “Star Trek.”
We learn just enough about their characters in “Unstoppable” to make us care about what happens to them, but not enough that the plot ever become overladen with personal details. Rosario Dawson is strong as a traffic manager who puts her job on the line to defy the smarmy execs worried about what an explosive derailment will do to the railroad company’s stock.
Thunderous, metallic, ominous, screeching sound effects add to the sensory perception that you’re watching a megaton monster barreling toward a dramatic showdown. But the camera treats everything like an itch that needs scratching. It’s forever sweeping, swooping, panning, hovering and zooming, giving even passive, “stationary” scenes an element of vertiginous motion that quickly becomes quite distracting. It may take you several minutes after the movie’s finished to feel like the ride is finally over.
If you’re looking for plot nuance, character development, social significance or moral-ethical lessons, “Unstoppable” probably isn’t your movie. But if you’re in the mood for some straight-ahead, pedal-to-the-metal, nail-biting action…all aboard!