For their fourth collaboration, in 2009, director Tony Scott and star Denzel Washington made a train-themed thriller. For their fifth collaboration, in 2010, Scott and Washington made a train-themed thriller. Who says there are no new ideas in Hollywood?
I jest, of course. Last year's remake The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 cast Washington as a New York City subway dispatcher managing a hostage crisis, while Unstoppable finds him playing a locomotive engineer troubleshooting a runaway train in Southern Pennsylvania. But since Washington is Washington and Scott is Scott and Hollywood is Hollywood, Unstoppable feels strictly old hat: Speed with a train, located in Scott's tiresomely hyperactive, tirelessly dumb oeuvre of high-tech "man caves" and pointless snap zooms.
Screenwriter Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) takes his "inspiration" from a true story that unfolded in 2001 in Ohio, where an unmanned train got away from its conductor and hurtled sixty-six miles with a cargo of toxic, non-flammable molten phenol. The same scenario unfolds in Unstoppable, only with much louder music and exclamations about "thousands of gallons of highly flammable fuel." The villains, then, aren't terrorists, but rather the fat cats making executive decisions from the golf course. Don't they understand that they're making it nearly impossible for the clever and hard-working bourgeoisie to save the day?
Conspicuously attractive train dispatcher Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) fights the good fight for sane decision-making, but when she's vetoed by the bosses, it's up to the men in the field to take the initiative, with a little unsanctioned help from Hooper and railroad welder Ned Oldham (Lew Temple). The manly men in a position to save the day are engineer Frank Barnes (Washington)—a seasoned veteran who's always right—and newbie conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine of Star Trek), perceived (and derided) as a child of privilege.
Frank and Will's dynamic is familiar enough to inspire self-referential dialogue, like Will complaining about the "make the new guy prove himself" situations into which Frank puts him. The feints at character development for the duo include making Barnes a divorced dad with just eighteen days left on the job and two daughters who work at Hooters (I kid you not, folks), and Colson an occasional hothead whose wife has a restraining order against him.
Washington initially had the right idea and walked away from the project, but eventually relented. Money talks, but the ham-handed script is beneath the award-winning star's talents, and Pine fares no better. In a movie built on clichés, Temple turns out to be the MVP, bringing a fresh, distinctive flavor to his resourceful, salt-of-the-earth character. Had the movie stuck with Ned, Scott might have had something more than fodder for cable and bargain bins.
The fundamental problem with Unstoppable rests less in cardboard characterization and more in a lack of tension. Not much can happen until the film's climax: should the train derail or collide with another train, the movie's over, so early scenes that suggest one of these scenarios might happen are patently empty gestures. With its one-track premise, Unstoppable derails thrills.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]