Unstoppable (review)

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(No) Brakes on a Train

I still can’t shake the feeling that Unstoppable is one of those fake movies you see inside other movies. You know the kind: there’s always a very exciting poster featuring famous faces floating over explosions, and a clip featuring histrionic dialogue and the promise of Big Drama caused by more explosions. I thought everyone knew that those fake movies were intended to make fun of Hollywood hyberbole. I never imagined anyone would take them as a template for an actual movie.

But that’s what we have here in Unstoppable. A runaway freight train loaded with dangerous chemicals is heading into a densely populated area! It’s a missile the size of the Chrysler Building! But wait! A reliable old-hand Hollywood star and a hungry new up-and-comer will save us all! Though there will be some explosions for your entertainment!
Hardly any explosions, though. The sense that Unstoppable works better as a concept designed to send up Hollywood idiocy than it does as an actual movie becomes instantly obvious the moment we realize that the movie that can be spun from such an idea will inevitably be stuck on a track from which it cannot deviate. The moment that the railroad folk realize they’ve got an unmanned train loaded with a toxic payload on the loose, even a poorly written movie such as this one must see to it that railroad crossings are cleared and such: you can only get away with the train hitting something interesting in its way once, and even how screenwriter Mark Bomback (Race to Witch Mountain, Live Free or Die Hard) manages that is a stretch. It is, however, an extension of the “American incompetence at its best” theme that allows the train to escape from the railyard in the first place.

I doubt, though, that Unstoppable wants to celebrate that incompetence. Because it then puts in the path of the runaway train stodgy Denzel Washington (The Book of Eli, The Great Debaters) — whom I don’t think wants to go stodgy just yet — who says things such as, “I been railroadin’ 28 years.” Which means he’s got an idea about how to stop the train without even leaving the nonrunaway train he himself is driving along those very same tracks. And we get his new sidekick, Chris Pine (Star Trek, Bottle Shock), who is — in the one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B checklisting that passes for characterization here — a violent jealous jerk when it comes to his wife and a guy with a family name that has paved paths for him in the cutthroat world of Pennsylvanian railroading. Which means he’s appropriately set up to be the hero who does something life-threatening and stupid to save the day.

Perhaps the level of absurd calculation that went into the script is best illustrated by one particularly awful scene, in which Denzel — running down his own one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B — explains that his daughters, 18 and 19 years old, are waitressing to work their way through college. “Where?” Chris asks. In the real world, Chris’s question would be interpreted to mean, “Where are they going to college?” because who the hell cares whether they’re waitressing at the Cracker Barrel off the interstate or the diner on the old county road. But in this movie, the vital question of where they’re waitressing must be answered, because it’s at a Hooters. Which was the only way for the movie to get some tits into its manly-man world of I been railroadin’ 28 years: the girls just so happen to be at work in their tight tank tops when Daddy shows up on breaking news on TV. Even this movie isn’t dumb enough to have Rosario Dawson (Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Seven Pounds), as the railyard boss, show up to work in a bikini. But don’t worry: the moron who let the train run loose gets to call her a “ballbuster” for doing her job.

All that — the Hooters, the “ballbuster,” the shouting about missiles the size of the Chrysler Building — is deployed in the hopes that you will find yourself aroused, one way or another, by 90 minutes of watching a train race along train tracks, in much the same way trains are intended to race along train tracks. Director Tony Scott (The Taking of Pelham 123, Deja Vu) desperately tries to inject some urgency, like by cutting once in a while to the schoolkids on a Railroad Safety field trip — irony! — who might possibly be in jeopardy from the runaway train. Or by ensuring that no one can have a phone conversation — as with corporate-criminal railroad VP of Operations (Kevin Dunn: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) about how much money the company will lose if they don’t do what Denzel says they should do — without swinging his camera around wildly.

You mostly end up just waiting for someone to compare the runaway train to a bitch that needs to be taught a lesson. And there it is: Chris Pine, though gritted teeth, promises that “we’re gonna run this bitch down.” And the circle of unintentional parody is complete.

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