Unstoppable‘s title is a dirty lie, but only insofar as it relates to the film’s “inspired by true events” story about a 2001 unmanned runaway train in southern Pennsylvania; as a description of Tony Scott’s assaultive aesthetics, it’s spot-on. Except, however, that during the opening passages of his latest, the director’s style is surprisingly toned down relative to his prior The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Déjà Vu. Such a comparatively reserved tone allows Scott to smoothly lay out his formulaic setup, in which—on the day of locomotive 777’s driverless trip down the tracks, a mishap caused by operator incompetence—new-kid-on-the-block Will (Chris Pine) is paired with retiring pro Frank (Denzel Washington), a rookie-vs.-vet dynamic that Mark Bomback’s script milks for predictable age-related tension and humor. Frank mocks Will for nabbing his new job thanks to industry-titan uncles (a bit of class friction that’s dropped as fast as its introduced), and Will bristles at what he perceives to be Frank’s condescension. All the while, 777 picks up steam, causing HQ operator Connie (Rosario Dawson) to fret and an evil corporate prick (Kevin Dunn) to convene with his boardroom bosses, who are informed via conference call by a golfing exec that derailing the freight train is out of the question because the ensuing fallout will lead to stock depreciation.
Oh those cartoon white-collar villains! Nonetheless, if the film paints in purely black-and-white shades, it at least spreads its bland censure around, making sure to also mock Ethan Suplee’s idiot railroad employee for causing this dilemma, as well as to point out that downtown Stanton, Pennsylvania’s elevated dead man’s curve—which 777 isn’t capable of safely navigating—has been made more treacherous by city planners’ inane decision to situate giant fuel tanks right next to the bend. When it comes to danger, Unstoppable gleefully piles on. Not only is the 39-car 777 “as big as the Chrysler building,” but it’s also carrying 30,000 gallons of toxic chemicals! Worse still, it’s headed straight for schoolchildren, who—quirky twist of fate alert!—are on a class outing to learn about railroad safety! It’s enough to drive everyone off the rails, or in Scott’s case, to start spazzing up the material. This he does with gusto, indulging in the color-filtered brand of ADD showmanship that has become his trademark: whooshing pans, circling camerawork around people at computer monitors in control rooms, and manic editing that allows no shot to last longer than five seconds.
Scott’s hyperactive flash and sizzle can be eye-searing, but, in this case, it’s in service of maintaining the tale’s straightforward, breakneck momentum. And though he flips a cop car just because he can’t stand the idea of not flipping a cop car, the director’s look-at-me approach allows the focus to be on his B-movie action rather than his characters, who—whether it’s Will and his desire to reunite with his estranged wife, or Frank and his relationship to teenage daughters who work at Hooters—are little more than two-dimensional heroes. Despite cardboard cutout bad guys, Kevin Corrigan’s safety expert spouting hilariously convenient theories about track friction and engine thrust, or 777 being depicted as a devil-red beast capable of Inception-style roars (BRUUUMF!), the film provides genre kicks with a muscularity that compensates for some of its shortcomings. Those don’t involve a rugged, ornery turn from Pine. Unfortunately, they do include the performance by his top-billed co-star, who—in this fifth collaboration with Scott—delivers little more than his usual ultra-confident charm while managing, until the climax, to remain constantly seated. Eventually racing at upward of 80 mph, 777 loses its initial designation as a “coaster,” but Denzel? In Unstoppable, he’s coasting.