The last time audiences were taken for a ride by hyperactive action auteur Tony Scott they didn’t, in a certain sense, get very far. Scott plonked audiences on board a train that wouldn’t start in his 2009 remake of Joseph Sargent’s 70’s hostage drama The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, recruiting John Travolta to grimace, scowl and send pesky do-gooders the long kiss goodnight from somewhere behind a six inch handlebar mustache.
How the times change: the central location of Scott’s new pulse pounding adrenaline fest Unstoppable is again a train, but this one has the reverse problem: it can’t slow down.
Denzel Washington stars in both movies, in the former as a calmly spoken mild-mannered traffic dispatcher and in the latter as a calmly spoken mild-mannered train engineer, but now with a trace of bitterness. Frank Barnes, a veteran fast approaching forced retirement, projects his disdain for his new vocational circumstance through cocksure but sage tutelage of Chris Pine’s Will Colson, a snappy young upstart conductor who decides to prove his mettle by taking part in Frank’s kooky plan stop to in its tracks a massive unmanned locomotive.
Nicknamed “The Beast,” this horror on rails resembles something right out of a creature feature, such is Scott’s frenetic approach. Not only is the train driver-less and gaining speed, it’s also loaded with toxic cargo (in a glorious splash of Hollywood hyperbole, school children are involved too) and headed towards a city. The train resembles, as the control room character (Rosario Dawson) observes in between staring incredulously at screens, maps and charts and yelping down the phone at her boss, something not unlike a gargantuan missile.
Scott mingles character exposition and mercifully light back story with 101 different ways to shoot a fast moving train; Buster Keaton, conductor of the inimitable slapstick epic The General (1926) would be proud, or perhaps intimidated: no chance of jumping off this train to clumsily remove a couple of awkwardly placed logs before hopping back on again.
Sustaining a rollicking momentum by cutting from The Beast to TV news bulletins, a control room engulfed in panic and confusion and pithy, entirely expendable getting-to-know-you dialogue between the two lead characters, it’s clear early on that Tony Scott is in his element and audiences will be strapped in for a rollicking nail-biter.
Denzel Washington is also in his element, and is rarely more appealing than he is in Tony Scott movies (Man on Fire, Déjà vu, Pelham 1 2 3, and especially Crimson Tide). Like Pine, Washington plays it broad – so broad he damn near stretches the screen ratio – but there is a delirious kind of pleasure in watching Washington in determined do-gooder mode, running heroically down the roof of a roaring locomotive, the scenery a blur of colours and swirls in the periphery vision of a bloke who could be excused for thinking that he should have slept in.
Cheesy fist in the air moments and blatant grabs for emotional gravity always threatened to derail the twitchy pleasure of watching Unstoppable, but Scott keeps the cheese low fat and the action thick and flowing.
The title is a description not of the train but of Unstoppable’s gnarly momentum. It comes on hard and fast, with half a mile of steam and grunt leaking out its wazoo, as ferociously unrelenting as the beast it photographs. This movie is a torpedo of rock and roll disastertainment – a knuckle buster to the noggin’ that speeds down the right track to satisfy audiences hankering for an exciting hour and a half. At the very least, those who came to see a movie about an unstoppable train ain’t going to leave disappointed.
Unstoppable’s Australian theatrical release date: January 6, 2010.