Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review: "Unstoppable"

I enjoyed "Unstoppable" much more than I thought I would. It's a slick, efficient thriller built around the enormously charismatic screen presence of Denzel Washington. It doesn't set any standards for originality and is about as subtle as a sledgehammer -- or a runaway train.

But as popcorn-munching entertainment, its proficiency is undeniable.

Washington plays Frank Barnes, a 28-year veteran railroad engineer. Frank is a prototypical Washington protagonist: He's good at what he does but doesn't flaunt it. He's friendly without being obsequious, and doesn't take guff from anyone. A widower, Frank loves his two teen daughters, and pretends that their working at Hooters doesn't bother him.

When Will Colson (Chris Pine) presents himself as his new trainee, Frank is all business: "If you don't know something, ask me." He goes about showing Will the ropes without animosity, even though the company is in the process of putting old-timers like him out to pasture and replacing them with whippersnappers like Will.

Each man has some static in his personal life. Will is currently separated from his wife and son, and there's even something about a court hearing and a restraining order. Meanwhile, Frank has forgotten his daughter's birthday, and is getting the cold shoulder from her.

When a careless rail yard worker (Ethan Suplee) lets a train get away unmanned, it sets off a chain reaction of events, building to a statewide emergency. It turns out the train, dubbed "Triple-7," is loaded with some nasty chemicals that could destroy an entire town. Frank and Will at first are on a collision course, and then volunteer themselves to stop the runaway.

The secondary characters present themselves as distinct and colorful. Connie (Rosario Dawson) is the dispatcher back at headquarters who acts as the voice of reason. Kevin Dunn is Gavin, the corporate honcho who plays the heavy, failing to listen to the people in the field who know what they're doing. Kevin Corrigan plays Werner, an inspector who was supposed to give a presentation to some school kids but instead adds his encyclopedic knowledge to the rescue effort.

I especially liked Lew Temple as Ned, an odd railroad worker who's sort of the X factor, blazing around in his huge red truck. Ned's the type of guy totally lacking in social skills, who bores people to death talking about the technical details of his job, but you want him around in a crisis.

This is the fourth movie director Tony Scott and Washington have made together, and the second in a row after another train movie, "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3." Scott's an old, expert hand at this sort of adrenaline-fueled material, and knows just how to hit the action beats for maximum impact.

The original screenplay by Mark Bomback is an exercise in lean storytelling: Just enough detail and background to give the main characters some layers, but jettisoning anything that detracts from the boiling plot.

The movie is loosely based on the "Crazy Eights" train incident from 2001. Interestingly, that happened in Ohio, while "Unstoppable" is set in Pennsylvania -- but was filmed largely in the Buckeye State.

"Unstoppable" is evocative of the economically depressed Midwest, and celebrates the type of no-nonsense blue-collar manhood that's been hardest hit by the Great Recession. It's an  engaging action/thriller in which no one pulls out a gun or throws a punch, and that's something.

3 stars out of four

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