Thursday, November 11, 2010

A movie that's on track for tension

Unstoppable may not change your life, but it provides a solid 98-minutes of white-knuckle escapism.
Chris Pine and Denzel Washington as men at work.

Tony Scott's Unstoppable barrels its way onto a large number of screens this weekend. In some parts of the country, Unstoppable opens against 127 Hours, director Danny Boyle's hyper-kinetic look at the harrowing, real-life experience of Aron Ralston, a young Coloradan who liberated himself from a Utah canyon by cutting off the lower part of his right arm.

I normally avoid reviewing one movie in terms of another, but I mention Unstoppable and 127 Hours together because both are designed for visceral charge and both are worth seeing. When it comes to end-of-the-year honors, though, it's a good bet that Boyle's festival-launched movie will fare better than Unstoppable.

Too bad. Unstoppable may not win many awards, but it does offer 98 minutes of heart-stopping escape. And unlike, 127 Hours, Unstoppable isn't burdened by even the slightest hint of pretension. Scott's movie clearly intends to provide a solid hunk of white-knuckle escapism -- and does.

Unstoppable reunites Scott with Denzel Washington, an actor he directed in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), Deja Vu (2006), and Man on Fire (2004). Unstoppable - a movie about a runaway train - marks the best of the Scott/Washington collaborations, a high-speed hunk of action that builds furious momentum.

Washington plays Frank, an engineer who has made a living hauling freight around the Pennsylvania countryside. A 28-year railroad vet, Frank is teamed with a newcomer to railroading (Chris Pine of Star Trek fame). A cost-conscious company has been pushing its older workers into early retirement, so the grizzled pros tend to resent novices such as Pine's Will.

Looking a little portly, Washington proves entirely convincing as an engineer who has lived a reasonably successful blue-collar life, raising two daughters as a solo dad. This being a Tony Scott movie, it should come as no surprise that Frank's daughters are hot young women with jobs at a local Hooters. They provide a modest splash of eye candy.

Will is married, but his marriage has hit a rough patch, the kind of troubled stretch that leads to restraining orders.

Blue-collar romanticism chugs through the movie. When the chips are down, Frank's hands-on experience trumps management's preoccupation with the bottom line. Frank ultimately devises the best plan for stopping a train that's racing toward catastrophe with no driver, no brakes and an engine that's fully powered.

And did I mention that the runaway train is carrying a highly toxic and combustible chemical that's used in the manufacture of glue? The runaway train becomes a monster unleashed on a rural landscape that's dotted with small and medium sized towns. The train's "a missile the size of the Chrysler Building,'' as one character puts it.

Unstoppable was inspired by a real 2001 incident, but a faithful rendering of events is not the point here. Scott knows that his job is to create high tension, and he never lets up.

He also augments the proceedings with tasty small performances. Ethan Suplee plays the engineer who stupidly jumped off his train to reset a switch, thus causing the runaway. Rosario Dawson portrays a railroad traffic manager who tries to prevent disaster, and Kevin Dunn appears as a railroad boss, an executive motivated by dual concerns: safety and profit. Well, maybe more profit than safety. Lew Temple plays another railroad employee, a guy who chases after the runaway train in his pick-up.

Screenwriter Mark Bomback doesn't seem to have spent much time fretting over the dialog, but he sustains a nearly unbearable sense of peril by presenting us with an escalating series of potential disasters.

Unlike an awful lot of contemporary movies, Unstoppable makes good on its promise. And happily, it doesn't depend on gunplay or explosions. Scott finds danger, excitement and heroism in a movie that knows precisely where it's headed, and takes us along for one of the season's most nerve-rattling rides.

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